Accidental Saints

Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Mother to us all. Amen+

Today in Mark’s Gospel we meet blind Bartimaeus, someone we might call an accidental saint. “Accidental saints” is a term I learned from Nadia Bolz-Weber, foul-mouthed, grace-filled, tattooed Lutheran pastor, and one of my favorite preachers. In her book Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, Nadia tells thestories of how the very people who drive her crazy are the ones in whom she, eventually, finds grace, sees the face of Christ.

And who of us doesn’t have one or two accidental saints in our own lives?

I’ve been fortunate to have many, though I confess I don’t often feel fortunate at the time that an accidental saint calls upon me for help, usually when I’m right in the middle of something SUPER important, like planning a vestry meeting or writing a sermon or any other thing that always seems WAY more important than the needs of the person who interrupts my well-planned day, an accidental saint like a woman I’ll call Sarah. . . .

Sarah showed up at an evening service and was clearly very devout, but when I talked to her after service, it became clear that she was, well, also a little drunk. She had a story, a hard one: a failed marriage, mental illness, estrangement from her parish, and a mid-life turn to beer, and lots of it.

Sarah was isolated from her community, left to sit on the side of the road, but she demanded attention, yelled for mercy. She showed up on the front porch of the rectory at all hours; she called me when she was in crisis. I took her to the emergency room, to AA meetings, I sat with her in a sterile waiting room debating whether she should commit herself to in-patient rehab to get sober. She was a kind woman but, let’s face it, a pain in the tail. She wasn’t really a member of the church, she popped in and out, but she needed help, and I got picked.

Having grown up in a home with alcoholism, I wasn’t always thrilled to spend hours with a sweet but drunk woman weeping and lamenting her past. But she kept coming back, kept showing up, kept asking for help. She was so grateful for the bit of stingy mercy and threadbare kindness I showed her.

After Sarah got out of rehab, she would visit me at church and bring me gifts,  things from her own home that she wanted me to have: the statue of an angel because I had been an angel to her, she said. A key chain of Don Quixote from LaMancha, Spain because I had kept her from tilting at windmills, she said. A book about the Eucharist because I had provided a place where she could know Jesus again in the sacrament, she said.

By this time in her life, Sarah had very little, but she was giving it all to me, the uptight priest

who had been helpful but, God help me, not so loving. And in those moments, Sarah showed me what trust and love look like, what humility looks like. Sarah held up an image of the kind of priest she needed and the kind of priest I hoped, but often failed, to be.

An accidental saint who asked for help and mercy but showed me the grace of God and the face of Christ.

[Pause]

Well, that’s the blind man in today’s Gospel. There’s a reason he’s the only person Jesus heals who is identified by name: Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. He’s known by all in Jericho because he’s a pain in the tail. Everyone knows this blind beggar who sits by the roadside, begging loudly. He’s the guy everyone’s sick of, the one everyone crosses to the other side of the street to avoid.

That’s why when Bartimaeus yells out as Jesus walks by, “Jesus, Son of David, Mercy, have mercy on me!” everyone around him sternly orders him to be quiet. “Shhh! Shut up, Bartimaeus!Don’t bother the Rabbi! He doesn’t have time for you!”

But Bartimaeus yells even more loudly: “Son of David, Mercy, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stops in his tracks, stands still, tells those around him to call Bartimaeus to him.

Suddenly, the crowd is transformed: they urge Bartimaeus to get up, go to Jesus. Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, leaps up and goes to Jesus, who asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

“My teacher, let me see again.”

And Jesus tells him his faith has made him well, and Bartimaeus—pain in the tail, accidental saint—regains his sight and follows Jesus on the way.

This accidental saint, who has been an embarrassing spectacle on the road outside the venerable city of Jericho, is the very one who actually gets who Jesus is.

Unlike the respectable rich young man who asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life but walked away when Jesus told him to sell everything, give it to the poor, and follow him, Blind Bartimaeus throws away his only possession—the cloak that keeps him warm on the street, the cloak where he keeps his beggar’s earnings—and immediately follows Jesus.

Unlike James and John who Jesus asked the same question he poses today—“What do you want me to do for you?”—Bartimaeus does not ask for power and glory, to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand; he asks to see, so that he might see, and follow, Jesus.

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Before running into Bartimaeus, Jesus and his followers have been moving quickly, on their way to Jerusalem, on the way to the cross, though only Jesus understands this. His own followers STILL don’t understand what kind of leader he is, still don’t get that to be first with Jesus is to be last, to lead is to serve, to save their lives they’ve got to lose them, that the one they follow isn’t going to reign in glory but be humiliated on the cross.

Still, they are on the move, no time to waste, when they get interrupted by the beggar by the side of the road: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And it is only when Jesus stops in his tracks, asks his followers to bring Bartimaeus to him that his followers get it, get who Jesus really is: he’s the one who stops for beggars, he’s the one who shows mercy to the ones we’d rather bypass. It’s only then that they see the way to follow Jesus isn’t to be rich and powerful, but to be vulnerable, to cry out for mercy.

Bartimaeus, pain in the tail, accidental saint, blind beggar, is, after all, the one who sees who Jesus really is, the one who can show others who Jesus really is. For when Jesus stops for the

least important person possible—outcast, a blind beggar—and shows him mercy, loving kindness, makes clear his priorities, and the crowd is transformed from hostile to Bartimaeus to encouraging him to go to Jesus.

*  *  *  *  *

We all know accidental saints, pains in the tail who won’t leave us alone, whom we might help but don’t miss when they’re not around, those we wish wouldn’t interrupt our neat lives with their messy cries for help, for love, for mercy and, yet, their faith in crying out transforms us, too, showing us the God who we might be too shy to cry out to for help, too polite to ask for mercy.

But here’s the thing, Beloved, WE are ALL accidental saints . . . pains in the tail, for others, perhaps, even, for God.

But it is IN the very vulnerability of our lives, in our need, that we can see God most clearly, and, I pray, show God to others.

And, when we are desperate enough, hopeful enough, to cry out, “Mercy, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!” Jesus stands still, looks at us, loves us, and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”