Ten years ago, I had the opportunity to bring a group of high school students on a mission trip to Toronto. As part of our experience, we went on an evening tour called The Unseen Toronto. For two hours, we walked the heart of the city as our guide pointed out the “invisible world” within the city. As we walked, we were exposed to the horrors of city life which are always there. When we strolled these streets, the world of the homeless unfolded before our eyes in the same way the magical world of Harry Potter unfolded within the Muggle world of England. When we turned a corner, we witnessed johns cruising up and down the street in expensive cars looking to score with teen prostitutes. The tour was everything it promised to be. It opened our eyes to an invisible world which existed in plain sight and yet we were either too busy, or too awed by the magnificence of the city, to see the human suffering that laid before us.
As I read the story of Bartimaeus, I thought about the homeless who occupy our cities and towns, and I wondered, if Bartimaeus were alive today, if he would be among them. As a visually impaired member of his society, he was deemed unclean. it was presumed he suffered due to his sins. I imagine the streets of Palestine were lined with beggars, people who could not work for one reason or another due to physical maladies and had no family willing or able to take care of him. . .making begging their only option for support.
So there, on the road to Jericho, Blind Bartimaeus sat everyday, one of countless members of an invisible world that continues to plague our cities and towns today. Yes, Bartimaeus lived in a world where people largely chose to ignore or to look beyond him. Bartimaeus lived in a world in which, if he was seen, he was expected to go unheard.
But Bartimaeus didn’t play by the rules, at least not on the day Jesus of Nazareth chose to walk by. Despite his lack of sight, Bartimaeus saw what others could not see, the presence of the Divine walking by him, as he called out and begged for mercy.
I have to admit, I often feel sad when Bartimaeus asks Jesus to heal his sight. I wonder if he understood what he was asking for. Did he realize what he asked for was akin to Adam and Eve’s desire for knowledge. With the ability to see the face of God, Bartimaeus would also have to deal with the ability to see the darkness from within.
This is the challenge we all face when we choose to journey deeper with God. That to which we were blind, now becomes clear. While the light disperses darkness, it also makes clear what the darkness hides from us, or better yet, what we hide from. In the Book of Acts, when St. Paul tells of his conversion, he describes the experience as a sense of blindness overtakes him for three days until finally scales fall from his eyes and he is able to see the path he is to follow, while at the same time, he accepts his need to repent for the evil he had caused in the name of God.
Seeing the light of God goes hand in hand with repentance. It is the light of God that illuminates our darkness and it is our willingness to accept our darkness that allows us to experience the love and mercy of God.
Most of us know the hymn, Amazing Grace, it was written during the eighteenth century by John Newton, at that time a former slave trader and convert to the faith. Newton penned these words to express his experience of God’s forgiveness several years after his conversion. At the end of the first stanza, Newton states, “I was blind but now I see.” In his time of darkness, Newton was blinded by greed, as he failed to see or accept the evils of slavery. Newton was also blinded by alcohol which soothed his anger over a childhood devoid of parenting. It was on the night he found himself overboard and on the brink of death when he allowed himself to experience the grace of Devine forgiveness as he begged God to spare his life.
This past year, Bishop Knisely has asked the parishes of this diocese to begin exploring that which we are blind to. . .our past. . .this is part of a diocesan wide effort to develop a greater awareness of racism in Rhode Island.
Racism is a subject most of us would rather not talk about. Like so many other uncomfortable subjects it is easier to avoid or deny inherent racism rather than confront it and work through its painful reality. As the song from Avenue Q so openly proclaims, “everyone’s a little bit racist.” The problem is, very few of us are willing to admit it to ourselves. As New Englanders, it is easy to believe racism is an issue for the South as seven predominately black churches in Missouri burned down this week due to arson. Or, as this nation works to heal from the riots which resulted from the countless African Americans who died at the hands of law enforcement.
Last year’s riots were so numerous that a former parishioners asked me what the anger was all about. Simply, the anger is about a history that most of America has failed to acknowledge, a history deeply imbedded in Rhode Island and we, like those who surrounded Bartimaeus, are blind to. The slave trade, the selling of human life is as much apart of Northern History as it is a part of Southern History, and it is within the history of slavery where, I believe, the roots of racism are found.
At our last clergy day, Bishop Knisely presented the documentary, “Traces of the Trade.” This movie chronicles the descendants of the DeWolfe family of Bristol, RI working to uncover and reconcile themselves with their connection to the slave trade. Their connection is through the family’s shipping empire of 18th and 19th centuries. At the end of their exploration, they come to realize that they could not change the past, but they could acknowledge it. What they come to realize is, they could not change the past, but they could learn from it. What they come to realize is, that they could not change the past, but they could atone for it. What they come to realize is, that they could not change the past, but they could influence the future.
We can do the same. This is why I have accepted our Bishop’s call to work towards racial reconciliation. I am in the process of planning a symposium for Lent 2016 with a working title of, “acknowledging our past, atoning the present and changing the future.” I hope many of you will join me for this journey, as we risk allowing Christ to illuminate the darkness of our past.
This morning’s Gospel began with Bartimaeus’ blindness and ends with our own. While Bartmaeus begs to see the physical world, may we beg to see what he already saw, the mercy of God by accepting the darkness within us. Amen.