‘Blind Bartimeus’: Sermon for 24th October

Sermon for St John’s Halesowen and St Margaret’s Hasbury

Begin with an introduction to the work of IC.

I had a challenging reading to preach on two weeks ago at St Peter Lapal and St Kenelm, and this week is no different. Here I am representing a charity which works on inclusion, which just held its 10th conference on Disability and Church last weekend, in partnership with St Martin-in-the-Fields – and I’ve been given the passage about Jesus healing blind Bartimaeus to preach on!

I am actually really grateful to be given this passage, because, when I am given a difficult reading, it gives me an opportunity to wrestle with scripture, which we are all called to do. Jesus himself loved to wrestle with and argue with scripture. He interpreted the scriptures in new ways, and asked questions of the society he was in. 

The healing stories in the Bible have long been used as an excuse to treat disabled people as objects of pity and as broken people in need of healing, with no gifts or agency of their own. The church has a long legacy of seeing disabled people at best as receptacles of charity, and at worst as products of sin. A friend of mine who is a priest told me that he still has the experience of people asking him randomly in the street why God hasn’t healed him – especially when he’s wearing his dog collar. Another friend who is autistic has been told in a church she needs to be broken down and built up again from scratch. A third friend told me she is never considered for leadership positions in church and is always spoken down to like a child, because she uses a wheelchair. It can be thoroughly soul destroying to be a disabled person in the church!

When we hear a reading like today’s about blind Bartimaeus, it’s easy to feel angry about it and wish that it just didn’t exist in the lectionary readings, or perhaps even in the Bible! We can’t impose our own culture and modern understanding of the world on 1st Century customs and beliefs, but we can wrestle with the scriptures and we can repent of the ways scripture has been used to hurt, harm and marginalise people.

In fact, the irony of marginalising disabled people by using passages like this one is that Jesus was very much performing a miracle here in order to put a stop to the marginalisation of a man who was rejected by his community and begging on the side of the road. We don’t have to assume that the best way to deal with disability nowadays is to go around attempting to heal people. Or at least not from their conditions anyway! Healing is something we all need, whether disabled or not. That’s another story for another day.

Once we understand that the Bible is not perfect in terms of the attitudes to disability within it, and the time of Jesus was very different to now, there are some really important things we can take from this reading. Firstly, the blind man is named. Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. Naming is quite significant in the Bible – his name has been remembered for some reason here. Perhaps he became important as part of the early Christian community later on, so his name was retained. That would also make sense of the fact that he follows Jesus at the end of the story. Jesus soon after this enters Jerusalem and is welcomed with palm leaves on the ground – this is the beginning of the end of the road for Jesus. Did Bartimaeus stay with Jesus until the end? It is interesting to note that, although in many parts of the New Testament, blindness is equated with sin and a refusal to see things as they really are, in 2 Corinthians 5 v. 7, Paul equates blindness with faith: ‘For we walk by faith, not by sight’, he says. Bartimaeus had a great faith, as Jesus says later in the story. Perhaps his faith continued to grow later on in his life too, as he continued to follow Jesus.

Naming is important for another reason too, when thinking about disability. Disabled people are people. People with names and lives. I know this sounds obvious, but it is not that obvious when you look at how they are sometimes treated in society. I have heard of wheelchair-using friends being forgotten on trains by guards, being shouted at for taking up space on the bus, and being constantly spoken over and ignored because people prefer to speak to the person pushing them when they’re in a manual wheelchair. The way society views disabled people differently when it comes to its  abortion and euthanasia is shocking. Babies are allowed to be aborted until they are coming down the birth canal in the UK, but only if they have Down’s syndrome, and there are many popular films, like Me Before You,  where disability is painted as something so tragic that you might as well kill yourself if you acquire a life-altering condition. Society in these instances says to disabled people: you do not matter, you are not even a person really, you do not deserve to be alive. So, yes, naming Bartimaeus is important.

The second thing I think we can take from this reading is that Bartimaeus was not shy in advocating for himself, despite the crowd attempting to shout him down and shut him up. This still happens to disabled people today. It is extremely exhausting to constantly fight the system and the way things are in order to get things changed and made more accessible so that you can just live your life in a normal way. Disabled people are made to feel like nuisances every single day just for wanting to access services like public transport or to enter buildings. Good on Bartimaeus for not giving up and not giving in, but it’s not always easy. It shouldn’t only be up to disabled people themselves to advocate. Others of us should pay attention to what is needed to make the world a better place, and we should persistently ask and advocate alongside disabled people. Let’s all be nuisances, so disabled people don’t have to be made to feel that way.

The third and final point I want to take from this reading as I wrestle with it, is that Jesus’ question to Bartimaeus is everything for disabled people. He says, ‘What do you want me to do?’ Asking this question of a disabled person, instead of assuming we know best and patronising them, is the best thing ever. It is what every disabled person hopes for from other people they meet. Disabled people themselves are the ones who know best what they need; not the government, and not the disabled person’s friends or family. The disabled person themselves. This question from Jesus shows Bartimaeus respect. It gives him agency and autonomy. It tells him ‘I know you know best what you need and can ask for it’. It also – radically – does not just assume that the most important and only important thing to do is to heal Bartimaeus of his blindness. Jesus only gives him sight because that is what he asks for; not because Jesus thinks that’s the one and only thing he needs.

Often the healing stories in the Gospels are more about healing from the wounds of rejection and marginalisation – and bringing people who are excluded back into the community – than they are about making people physically ‘normal’. It is impossible to read stories from the time of Jesus and to separate disability from social exclusion. Disabled people were extremely socially excluded in Jesus’ day. Jesus was often more concerned with healing relationships and bringing people back into the community group than with making disabled people non-disabled. Whether people were excluded because of disability or because of some other cultural ‘transgression’, Jesus wanted the community to accept them again, and there are many stories of him finding ways to make that happen. The Samaritan woman at the well, for example, in John, was accepted back into her community following Jesus’ intervention.

As you think about becoming an inclusive church, and about how you can better include people in your church who have felt less included than others for many years, why not ask them the question Jesus asked: ‘What do you want me to do?’ Another good question to ask is ‘What is it you need from me/us as a church?’ Or ‘How can we make church more accessible to you?’ Also, ‘How can we make you feel comfortable and included?’ And so on. There are so many questions we can ask of excluded and marginalised people, for example LGBT+ people, disabled people and people of colour. The best way to find out how you can be more inclusive as a church is by asking questions and being curious. Education is about being curious, especially about people who are different from you. We at Inclusive Church are an educational charity, and as such, we would love to work with you so that you can learn more about including and loving your neighbour. I pray that you will learn from Bartimaeus and from all those on the margins of society and church. God bless you on your journey.