by the Rev. James B. Craven III
In the name of God – Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen.
My son Will reminds me of why I believe in miracles, particularly miracles of healing, which occupied a lot of Christ’s time. I have never counted the acts of healing in Holy Scripture, but there are a lot. Ten years ago Will, then 33, was on his bicycle at an intersection in San Francisco where he was hit by a car. Eyewitnesses saw the wheel of the SUV run over his head. An ER physician happened to be standing on the corner just feet away. She thought Will was dead, as he was bleeding from his mouth, nose and ears and was motionless. Fortunately the San Francisco General Hospital was close by. The consensus there was that Will might well not make it. Sara and I of course got the first flight we could to San Francisco. The next day the ER physician who had seen Will lying in the street stopped by the ICU and was met by our Will, walking and talking, fractured skull, fractured clavicle, broken ribs, punctured lung and all. He did stay there several days, but now, ten years later, the only after effect is hearing loss in one ear. The doctors call it a miracle, and I think it was. They had no other explanation for it.
It was my good fortune from childhood to know Paul Moore Jr., who later became Bishop of New York. Paul visited us in Morganton many years ago, and I remember he was captivated by a radio broadcast of a very nasal country preacher extolling snake handling. Paul and my father fought together at Guadalcanal until Paul was shot in the heart. Miraculously, instead of quickly bleeding out, the wound closed up, and he never even lost consciousness. My dad and a Navy dentist got to him first. He said that maybe he would go to seminary after all. From them on, as a charismatic, movie star handsome Marine officer with a Navy Cross, a Silver Star, and a Purple Heart. Paul spent the rest of the war on war bond tours with Hollywood stars. His surviving being shot in the heart though was nothing short of a miracle. The Navy doctors who took care of him had no other explanation for it.
So I believe in miracles, and Jericho was the scene of one of the best known. Jericho is maybe 15-20 miles east of Jerusalem, and Jordan is right across the Jordan River. Ancient Jericho was likely the first place on earth where folks settled permanently and built what we now know as a town, arguably a trade up from the wandering life of the herdsmen or the hunter-gatherers. In the Hebrew Bible we have the great story in Joshua of the Israelite army marching around Jericho seven times blowing rams’ horns, and the walls came tumbling down. It was at Jericho that Elijah was taken up into heaven, and where Elisha purified the water with salt.
Only Luke tells us the first of the Jericho stories in the New Testament, the story of the call of the wealthy tax collector Zacchaeus. He was a short little guy, and the crowds surrounding Jesus as he was passing through Jericho were such that Zacchaeus couldn’t see anything. So he climbed up in a sycamore tree to get a better view. Now I have been to Jericho and folks will show you that very sycamore tree. This is not unlike the 4th century tour of the Holy Land by Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine. She of course wanted to know where everything she had heard about in Holy Scripture had happened. Her tour guides weren’t about to tell the emperor’s mom, “You got me,” so their response to all of her questions was “Why it was right over there, ma’am.” So too with the sycamore tree in Jericho.
To Zacchaeus’ surprise, Jesus looks up at the tree, calls Zacchaeus by name and says “Come on down. I’m staying at your place today.” The crowd was incredulous. Jesus is having dinner with that guy? What was unspoken was “instead of us”? Zacchaeus told Jesus he gave half of all he had to the poor, and “if I have defrauded anyone I returned it fourfold.” Jesus rejoiced, and accepted Zacchaeus as a fellow son of Abraham. He came to seek and save the lost, and Zacchaeus had been lost, but wanted to be found.
All three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) tell us the story of the miraculous healing of Bartimaeus we heard from Mark today. In Mark, Bartimaeus was a blind beggar, in Luke he was just a nameless blind man, while in Matthew there are two blind men. The story is the same though.
This story of Bartimaeus and his eye issues sort of hits home with me because I will be having cataract surgery on both eyes in November. I am reminded of what Woody Allen famously said once, “I’m going to give my therapist one more year and then I’m going to Lourdes.” I do plan to see you all better though.
As blind Bartimaeus saw better. The story in Mark is about so much more than a miraculous healing, for it is also about Bartimaeus being called as a disciple of Jesus. Bartimaeus would not be silenced. He kept calling out “Jesus,. Son of David, have mercy on me.” Jesus’ followers always tried to keep the supplicants away from him. But Bartimaeus kept on calling him, and that he called him Son of David showed Bartimaeus knew Jesus’ genealogy, at least his spiritual genealogy. So Jesus asked that Bartimaeus be brought to him, and asked him “What do you want me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus said “My teacher, let me see again.” He recognized Jesus’ authority in that response, and told us he had not been blind from birth. Maybe it was glaucoma or macular degeneration. Whatever it was, Jesus healed him immediately, simply saying “Go, your faith has made you whole.” Wow! And Mark tells us that “Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” Bartimaeus from that moment on was on the team. He became one of Jesus’ followers “on the way”, and the way meant what we might call, to use one of Michael Curry’s favorite terms, the Jesus Movement. The Church and Christianity were of course yet to come, just as Good Friday and Easter were yet to come.
The healing of Bartimaeus, and his restoration to sight, was a powerful act of healing, but very much combined with the call of Bartimaeus as a follower of Jesus on the way. All we really know of Bartimaeus is that he was a blind beggar and the son of Timaeus. Mark likely tells us who Bartimaeus’ father was to help nail down the authenticity of the story. We’re not just talking about some fictional character here folks, this is Bart, Tim’s boy. You all know him. In other words there were witnesses to what happened that day, as there were to so many other miraculous acts we encounter, in Holy Scripture and in our lives. Does the resurrection make scientific sense to me? Not at all, but there are so many witnesses to it, men and women who talked with him, walked with him, had a fish fry with him, saw and touched his wounds. I’m convinced, though scientifically, to me in the 21st century west, it makes no sense at all. I can’t explain it, but I believe it. I can’t really explain unconditional love and acceptance either, but I sure know it and feel it, in my family and here in this parish church. Is that another miracle? Yes, just as it is a miracle healthy babies come into this world and are loved so totally. And when folks die, loved, content and at peace, with themselves, with God and with their families. Life and death do kind of go together, don’t they?
I will leave the virgin birth and Jesus walking on water for another day. My guess is that the story of the virgin birth was likely allegorical, but what do I know, and there was no DNA testing back then. As for walking on water, Fox News would have headlined it, “Jesus Can’t Swim,” but I have long assumed there was a convenient sandbar there.
There are times in our lives, I suspect all of us, when we are moved to cry out, in our hearts and minds, if not out loud, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” And we will be healed, and follow Christ, healing and reaching out to others. And so many of you have reached out in love to me when I have been in need, and I love you for it.
And much of it began at Jericho. Thanks be to God.