Evensong Sermon Series, Lent, Sunday 19 March 2017

By Neil Greenhalgh

The year 1927 was decisive for modern culture. In that year a film was released, The Jazz Singer, which was the first talking movie, at least with a technology more usable than the fiendishly difficult attempts at it before then.

At a stroke, the vital question that faced every silent movie actor became 'Has he or she got a voice?' Some favourites like Charlie Chaplin had finely modulated voices and a sound career beckoned, others like Clara Bow and Buster Keaton called it a day, others still like John Gilbert limped on until in his case his patrician drawl got a disastrous reception in Queen Christina. His partner in that film and in life, Greta Garbo, had an entirely other type of voice and retired at a time of her choosing, with the words 'I want to be alone'.

Two years later the Wall Street crash dried up large amounts of money sloshing around America and then Europe, and various actors on the world stage, as distant in place and temper as Adolph Hitler and Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave voice to the frustration and terror and hopes of millions. We know what an economic crisis is like and we seem to be witnessing the resurgence of 'strong men' to give that voice again.

Blind Bartimaeus whom I have chosen to talk about is a man of that time and ours. He sits at the roadside on his cloak, a few coins gathered on it, a sight you can see outside the Co-op any day God sends. He has been ignored most of his life, attended to only in his basic needs but, in the spirit of President Roosevelt who declared 'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself', on hearing Jesus coming he seizes the one chance fortune, in fact God's providence, has given him to express his pain and his longing, 'Jesus son of David, have mercy on me!' Given the response he is probably most used to (being told to shut up) he will not be silenced, for he has been waiting his entire life for this moment, as Jesus has been waiting for the time that awaits him in Jerusalem, which is why he is on this road. Bar Timaeus, son of the noble, calls to the son of God.

He is rewarded with the question 'What do you want me to do for you?' This last miracle will show Jesus again as the Servant King.

What is it you want me to do for you? We may set out with good intentions and sometimes it goes awry. Years ago I knew a Swedish lady who asked me 'Have you ever been interviewed by a journalist?' I had to admit not, and she told me about an art exhibition she had put on years earlier concerning her interests and issues. The journalist in question produced a story which was at complete variance with the truth she wanted told.

Likewise, there are those who have no intention of fulfilling their claim to serve. I need mention only Imelda Marcos and her three thousand pairs of shoes bought with money given by the United Nations for the poor, and as a commentator recently put it there are many African presidents who are richer than their countries. Less a matter of what do you want me to do for you? as what do you want me to do for me?

Jesus' question used to puzzle me a lot. It was so obvious Bartimaeus will ask to have his sight restored. But in time I realised it goes infinitely deeper. What Bartimaeus wants is for someone to ask him that very question. Here is a man whose entire life has been a Lent, a Calvary, whose every moment and action has involved someone else's help or say-so. He needs to be asked what he wants, he needs to be given freedom to choose more than anything else. From this moment of free choice he can be healed and rebuilt, free to name what he wants as much as anyone else.

Remember St Andrew to whom Jesus' first question was 'What is it you are looking for?' He and St Peter and the rest want someone to ask that question, which leads to new teaching, new potential, new life and the church you see around you. The NRSV gives Jesus' commendation as 'your faith has made you well', but the King James version has 'whole' which is nearer to what God wanted for Bartimaeus and for us all.

In our own time we have seen a new pantheon of sporting stars in the Paralympic movement. I have friends who are unimpressed. 'Why would you want to watch that?' I want to watch that because despite what life has handed out or thrown at them, like Bartimaeus they find it within them to envision and remake for themselves a new life, a new wholeness filled with achievement.

It is one thing to deny yourself an aspect of life for Lent, it is a journey into the lives and privations of others and can teach what is valuable in life, but it is quite another to deny an aspect of one's nature to fit someone else's idea of reality. Disabled people were hidden away for generations in respectable households until the First World War produced so many their existence could no longer be denied. The numerous liberation movements of the last seventy years, racial, gender, and LGBT testify to their members' outrage being evoked in other people's prisons.

In an age of rocketing inequality when will we discover the poor again? What is at stake here is our Imago Dei, our resemblance to God. We can reclaim it only if we cease to tolerate misshapenness in others and instead determine to help them to build themselves anew. Wholeness and holiness are essentially the same word. By the same token the word person derives from persona, by sound, like an actor in the amphitheatre who in his mask could only be identified by the sound of his voice.

People are not persons until they are given a choice, and a voice for their hearts and minds. Two thousand years on, Bartimaeus still has something to say to us.