Every year the kindergarten children at the Milestones Daycare in our building open an art gallery. Heidi, the lead teacher, shares famous art work with the children. And then they make their own versions of the paintings. The halls outside their classroom - the same hallway as the choir room - are filled with their work.
I particularly like the works inspired by a Pablo Picasso’s “Blue Period.” The children make paintings of their own blue moments and then narrate explanations. Sophie painted her blue mood and added the caption, “One time Lani pulled my hair so hard it come out a bit.” Zora’s noted, “Me and my brother get in fights and call each other names - potty names. Then we have to go to our rooms.” And Louis, “I got bitten in the tummy by Oliver. But not our Oliver. The St. John’s Oliver. I never done something bad to him. He just bit me.” There’s an aching honesty to these works.
Looking at the paintings one can see the similarity to the masterpiece that inspired it. And yet the handiwork of the child comes through too.
In a way, this reminds me of the Gospels. Each Gospel presents famous scenes from the life of Jesus. Often they depict the same events, but show them in different ways. One can sense the actual event behind these portrayals; and yet the handiwork of each author comes through too.
Today we heard two of those different portrayals of Jesus. All of the Gospels tell some version of this story: Jesus healing a man who was blind. But each of them speak of it differently. Hearing these stories side-by-side, I first want to say that we’re hearing two versions of the same kind of event. Normally we look at them separately, but this morning I want to see what these two stories can teach us about how Jesus lived and, by extension, how we can live too.
In both stories, a man who was blind gained the ability to see. And while we might focus on that miracle, I think the greater lesson in each story concerns how Jesus helped each man express his own autonomy and agency.
Because the concept of agency underlies each of these different but parallel stories, I want to recall with you what this means. An “agent” is - as the dictionary might say - “the doer of action who exerts power.” As such, an agent can be contrasted to a victim. A victim is one who is acted upon, adversely, by the power of another. Jesus saw the men who were blind as agents, not victims. And when I say that, can’t you see the ways the crowd wanted to make those men victims. The crowd tried to silence one man; shut him up. And about the other they wonder, “did this man sin or his parents?”
To me the real meaning of these stories isn’t a cure of blindness but instead Jesus helping people claim their own agency.
To start with the Gospel of Mark: Jesus, on the road from Jericho, got accosted by a beggar shouting from the roadside. While others wanted to ignore the man, or at least shut him up, Jesus invited the man who was blind over to him. And when the man who was blind came to Jesus, Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?”
It’s kind of an odd question. The man was blind. Surely Jesus could see that. And, of course, there was that whole Son of God thing which ought to have given him insight into what the man needed. And yet Jesus asked, “What do you want me to do for you?”
One of my mentors once pointed out that most of us assume we know what people want, especially if they have a disability or challenge. And yet, if we pause, we could come up with all sorts of things the man could have wanted more than sight. He could have wanted Jesus to help him reconcile with his father. Or help finding someone to share his life. Perhaps a job. Or maybe something entirely different. The plain truth is: we never know until we ask, “What do you want me to do for you?”
By asking this question, Jesus showed respect for the man. The contrast with the crowd highlights Jesus’ respect. The crowd told the man to be quiet; they tried to silence him. But Jesus leaned in to listen, open to whatever he would ask. And interestingly, at a time when the disciples and crowd couldn’t quite see who Jesus was, Bartimaeus saw Jesus accurately, “You’re the Son of David, the Messiah.”
I wonder, “What would you say if Jesus asked you, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’” Could you sit with that question this week? To reflect deeply on what you would ask of Jesus? Prayer begins with that question.
But I also wonder what would happen if we started asking that question of important people in our lives. What do you want me to do for you? How would your spouse answer? Your best friend? A relative? A child? Too often we think we know how someone would answer but what if we took time this week to listen?
Jesus asked Bartimaeus a question Jesus didn’t know the answer to. “What do you want me to do for you?” When we ask people these kinds of questions, we allow them to exercise agency, to claim their voice and exert their choice over their own lives.
In the Gospel of John version of this healing story, Jesus doesn’t ask before curing the man of his blindness. But, in ways even more dramatically than in Mark, this gospel presents a story of a man claiming his own agency.
The man started the story as a passive participant in all the things happening around him. He remained mute, even when a crowd gathered around him to debate, “Did this man sin or did his parents?” How awful to hear yourself spoken of this way, pushed around by amateur moralists. The so-called religious talking about ‘your condition’ and ‘your sinfulness.’ (I can hardly imagine it).
Jesus healed the man but his situation didn’t improve much. At the beginning of the story, the man was silent but now that he can see, no one can see him. What slapstick! The crowd became blind to the man. But also what a statement on their myopia. The crowd could only recognize the man for his disability; they could only see his blindness and not his humanity.
The crowd took the man to the religious authorities. They poked and prodded him in an attempt to understand what happened. The man began to talk more, even explaining how Jesus healed him. “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” But this explanation made the authorities mad. Jesus had kneaded together spit and dirt to make the mud; kneading was prohibited on the Sabbath.
But still the crowd didn’t believe the man. They questioned his parents, who in an awkward moment barely acknowledge him. But each time the man was asked about what happened, his voice became clearer and stronger. The man stuck to his truth even in the face of losing family and community approval. He would not back down. And in the end of the story, when Jesus returns, the man proclaimed Jesus as his messiah. Like Bartimaeus, this man saw truly who Jesus was while everyone else remained blinded to the truth.
Looking at these two stories together, gives me a picture of Jesus as someone who worked for the agency of other people. He made sure others could have a voice. We’re called as disciples to act like Jesus. What would our faith look like if we dedicated ourselves to the agency, the voice, of other people?
So often in Christianity we’ve pictured the moral life as a struggle between right and wrong, sin and sanctity. But what if the spiritual journey wasn’t about such things. What if instead we focused on agency, on helping the voiceless find a voice and about learning to claim our own voices too?
I know this might embarrass him, but if we took Jesus as our model, if we were committed to make sure the voiceless had a voice, then we might find ourselves acting a lot like Earl Kammerud. Earl, as he mentioned, is moving down to Georgia to live near his daughter Betsy. But before he goes I want to celebrate Earl as a champion of justice. At numerous churches in Wisconsin, Earl worked to empower people to be the agents of their own lives, to claim their own authority and celebrate their own humanity regardless of what others saw.
Earl often made people aware of justice issues in creative and humorous ways. He served Faith Church down in Racine. The very proper people at Faith Church didn’t really see Jesus in the face of the vulnerable, hungry, homeless people in the city. So Earl recruited a young actor named Darren to come to church. Darren dressed up in a wig, added a few touches of make-up, and took on the persona of a man who was homeless.
And then Darren came into the church and sat down in a pew, arranging a few bags around him I’m sure. People got uncomfortable.
And then during the sermon, Earl revealed the ruse. He asked people to look at their feelings towards Darren. And, from this, to learn to see the humanity of those they might normally dismiss.
Earl, like Jesus in our story from John, even ran into his own trouble with religious authorities. Sometimes it was the authorities at his annual conference. And sometimes in his own congregation. At his congregation in Chetek, Wisconsin, Earl started raising questions about the dignity of gay and lesbian people. This ruffled some members. They didn’t want the church to become open and affirming. They couldn’t see those people as their brothers and sisters. Three pillars of the church came to see Earl in his office. He listened. And then he said, “I hear what you’re saying.” But Earl didn’t back away from his justice commitment. He cheekily added, “Just remember, I’m going to be the one doing your funeral. And you want me to say something nice.” Jesus could be snarky too.
Our path to being like Jesus can be a journey to greater and greater agency in our lives, not just finding our own voices but helping all who are silenced find their voices too. Sometimes it might mean asking questions and letting the other person say what they need. Sometimes it might mean learning to share our truth whatever others think. And sometimes it might mean getting snarky. But by all those means, we can help the voiceless find their voices. Amen and Amen.