Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 28 October 2012: Year B, Proper 25
Look at it this way…
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
In our Reformed brand of Christianity, there’s always been a certain suspicion of the visual arts. All our stained glass has only been put in the last hundred years or so, and we are not keen on statutes in our church buildings (although we have some wonderful decorative carvings in this building). We are children of Calvin and Knox, and we recall the Second of God’s commandments to Moses- no graven images! And so our worship has little place for images- it is mostly Word, although today we have bread and wine on the table, which almost like a visual aid- tangible things to remind us of the Gospel (which is what the Orthodox say their icons are for).
So sometimes, people have suggested that Scottish culture has not made much of the visual arts, because our Presbyterian culture discouraged it. But you can hardly visit one of our bigger cities without being struck by the fact that at the peak of the Victorian era, when religion held a much greater sway than today, our ancestors built some amazing monuments to visual arts. There’s the great galleries, on the Mound in Edinburgh or at Kelvingrove in Glasgow, and the abundance of statues to the heroes of the age (many of which, I suspect, will survive longer than much of today’s ‘public art’).
When I was a wee boy, it used to be exciting to go to Glasgow to shop, maybe in the run up to Christmas. All the shops had great big windows, often with spectacular displays, totally unlike anything in the small town I lived in. Those shop windows seemed to be what the big city was all about. But when I got a bit older I went to study in Glasgow, and as a student I often found myself taking buses- double-decker buses. Even today, if I get on a double-decker bus, I can’t resist going upstairs. For it was upstairs on the Glasgow buses that I began to realise that there was a lot more to Glasgow than just the shop windows, because now I could see above the ground floor. And up there it’s complete crazy, because they’ve never modernised above the ground floor. Upstairs Glasgow is a riot of fantastic architecture- Greek, Roman, Venetian, Mediaeval French, and a few styles they just made up. There are angels on the corner of buildings, turrets and domes galore. Well-endowed ladies hold up windows, and Herculean men have been turned into pillars. You can see a full-rigged sailing ship floating above George Square, if you know where to look. We often think of the Victorians as a rather staid bunch, but they let their architects do what they like. And it’s upstairs on the bus that you can really Glasgow’s Victorian architecture. Yet I’m sure many people never see anything more than the ‘modernised’ ground floors, so that for them Glasgow city centre is just the usual collection of chain stores, building societies and all the mundane things that you’d find in any British High Street.
I think art is about trying to help people see things differently. It doesn’t always succeed for everyone. The art which most moves me is music, and a pickled shark or an unmade bed doesn’t really give me much insight. But on the other hand, those Victorian architects who decided that they needed to disguise a water tank behind something that looks like a tower from a Highland castle still make me smile, a hundred years on.
I think faith is about seeing things differently was well. I could not imagine how the world would look to me if I did not believe that the creative force behind it was a loving God. And today’s Gospel reading is about that: about not seeing, about faith, and about becoming able to see.
Here, on the roadside, is Bartimaeus, who cannot see. But Bartimaeus has faith. When he hears that Jesus is passing by, he calls out to him: him: ‘Jesus! Son of David. Take pity on me!’ he cries. An interesting choice of words, because by calling Jesus ‘Son of David’, Bartimaeus is expressing his belief that Jesus is the descendant of Israel’s greatest king. When he shouts this, people tell him to keep quiet- I think, because they don’t want any trouble. For there is already a king in the land- Herod. And there is another, greater king who rules the known world from Rome, and the Emperor’s legions occupy Jerusalem. This Jesus has been enough trouble as it is- we don’t want him to be challenging the political powers- keep quiet, Bartimaeus- don’t be shouting such controversial things.
But Bartimaeus, blind though he is, has in fact seen more clearly than everyone else. He has seen that truth about Jesus- that he is, indeed, a king. And Bartimaeus, who’s just a blind beggar, has the courage that comes from having nothing, and so he will not be prevented from crying out the truth even louder. He proclaims that this is the Son of David, the new king, the one we have been waiting for, who will have pity on me, poor Bartimaeus, for he is the one who makes the blind see, the deaf hear, and lame walk- just as the prophets said it would be. He shouts louder and louder until finally Jesus hears him, and asks for Bartimaeus to be brought to him. Throwing off his cloak as if he is throwing off all his cares, Bartimaeus stands before Jesus and boldly says he wants to be able to see again. Jesus’ reply is interesting: ‘Go, your faith has made you well’- and Bartimaeus can see clearly!
The story is told of a psychiatric hospital in which there was a long-term ward, with men who had been there twenty or thirty years. A young psychiatrist was assigned to the ward, and to begin with he made one little change- he installed a small mirror on a pillar in the middle of the ward.
Now, before there had never been a mirror in the ward, for the doctors did not trust the patients- they feared that they would break any mirror and use the broken glass to harm themselves. For twenty or thirty years, these men had never seen themselves in the reflection of a mirror.
Slowly, some of them began to quickly, slyly, glance in the mirror. They were often horrified by what they saw- unkempt hair and scruffy beards obscured their faces. As time went on, the patients began to ask for combs, even for razors, and began to tidy themselves up. In a few months, their appearances had changed drastically for the better, and they were themselves more active and alert. The young psychiatrist had decided that these men could, indeed, be trusted with a mirror, and they responded, as it were, in faith, to the trust that had finally been given to them. Now they could see themselves- something which had been denied them so long- and their faith made them well (Donald Capps, Reframing, p69f).
There are none so blind as will not see, as the saying goes. The news recently has been reminding us of how we are able to not see what is in front of our faces. You have to ask whether the showbusiness culture in which Jimmy Savile flourished had so lost its moral moorings that people were unable to see evil when it was in front of their face. And I find myself asking whether today, when the cult of celebrity have become even more pervasive, if things have really changed very much.
People like to think that this is a secular culture we live in today. But if our culture is still is shocked by the abuse of children, it is only really because our culture has been so heavily influenced, historically, by Christianity. For before Jesus came along, people treated children as less than second-class citizens. For example, if a family felt that had too many children already, it was quite in order to ‘expose’ a new born baby. You took the baby and left them out on the hills to die of starvation, cold, or the mercies of the wild animals. This was an accepted part of life in ancient times, and few seem to have questioned the practice. But then Jesus came, and said one day, ‘let the children come to me, and do not forbid them, for of such is the kingdom of God’. And one of the great achievements of the early Christian church was to end the practice of exposing babies. Children had always been there. It wasn’t that we couldn’t see them. But Jesus made people look at children in a new way: for of such is the Kingdom of God.
On the Table before us are bread and wine- simple, straightforward food and drink. Nothing magical or miraculous about them. Much ink has been spilled in debates about the meaning of this sacrament we are about to share together. But in it is faith which enables to see that there is more to this bread and wine, and our eating and drinking it, than our eyes can see, than we can put into words. On the night of his betrayal, Jesus took bread and wine and enabled his disciples to see them as symbols of and about himself. After that, his followers could no longer share bread and wine and not be reminded of him. The Letter to the Hebrews calls Jesus our great ‘High Priest’. It is a reminder of the worship of the Temple in Jerusalem, where priests would offer sacrifices to God in order to take away the sin of the people. Those sacrifices no longer take place. Instead, when we eat and drink at this table, we recall that Christ was both the giver of the sacrifice- the High Priest- but also the victim of the sacrifice. He gave himself on the cross. And so this table reminds us of mysteries which we cannot adequately put into words. All we know is that we do this because Christ commanded it. Here we remember his life, and what he did for us through his life and death. There is an drama here, a kind of symbolic re-enactment of Christ’s death on the cross. And there is art here, for we are taking simple things- bread and wine- and allowing them to point beyond themselves, so that we see things in a different way, as if we are sitting on top of a bus or looking into a mirror for the first time.
Jesus was a genius at this sort of thing. When he wanted to tell people not to worry, he pointed to the lilies of the field and said that Solomon in all his glory was never dressed as finely as them. He told his followers that when they helped someone in prison or someone who was naked or thirsty, they were be helping him. He said that those who are first in this world are really the last and those who serve are really the greatest people. Again and again, Jesus makes us to look at things differently.
So, today- take, and eat and drink. It is only bread and wine, ordinary, everyday, nothing special about it. But remember that Christ said it was his body and blood, given for you. Seen with eyes of faith, this table, this bread and wine, has a new significance. And we will go from here looking at the world in a new way as well. For seeing differently is a gift of faith.
Ascription of Praise
Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2012 Peter W Nimmo