October 28, 2018 — Twenty-third Sunday After Pentecost
Rev. Alison Quin
Ask for What You Need & Listen for the Cries of Others
Today, we are commemorating Matthew Shepard, who died 20 years ago this month in Laramie, Wyoming. He was a 21-year-old college student, at a bar with other students. Two of them offered to drive him home, but instead of driving him home, they drove him to a deserted place, tied him to a fence and brutally beat him. Then they left him there for 18 hours until a passerby came and called an ambulance. He was in a coma for 6 days and then he died.
The two men killed him because he was gay. His death sparked a wave of activism on behalf of the LGBTQ community, which resulted in the Shepard/Byrd Act, a federal law adding crimes based on sexual identity to the list of hate crimes. Matthew’s parents were actively involved in advocating for the law, and they have been staunch supporters of the LGBTQ community.
His family has kept his ashes at home for 20 years because they couldn’t think of a safe place to bury him where his grave wouldn’t be vandalized. They also wanted to protect other families from crowds of supporters who might make pilgrimages to his grave.
But they finally chose the Washington National Cathedral as his final resting place. The family is Episcopalian—Matthew’s mother said he loved the Episcopal church and felt welcomed by his church in Laramie. His ashes were interred in the crypt of the Cathedral Friday, with the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, presiding. Peace be upon him and upon his family.
It is rare for people who are not bishops or presidents to be buried at the Cathedral. The last person before Matthew was Helen Keller. Matthew is important to so many people—a martyr whose death helped bring about a transformation of our culture and our laws.
This transformation is far from complete, however. LGBTQ people are twice as likely as African Americans to be the victims of hate crimes, and more likely than Jews. Black transgender women are the most likely to be targeted, because of the intersection of race, gender and sexual identity.
Today’s gospel is a miracle story about the healing of a blind beggar. But it is also the story of the transformation and healing of the crowd. As Jesus and the disciples are leaving Jericho with a large crowd, a blind beggar named Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is passing by and shouts out to him for help. The crowd tries to shut him up, but Jesus hears him and stands still. What a beautiful image that is—God stopping for each one of us when we cry out for help. It’s the shepherd who leaves the 99 to go looking for the one lost sheep.
Jesus tells the crowd to call Bartimaeus. Here we see the crowd’s attitude change—instead of trying to shut him up as they were just moments before, they encourage him. “Take heart, get up, he is calling you.”
It is easier than we would like to think for us to close our hearts to the cries of those who need help and healing. After all, to listen to those cries means to open our selves to their suffering—and to do something about it.
And there are all sorts of emotions that may arise for us—guilt that we are better off than the person who is crying out for help, fear of getting involved and being overwhelmed, anxiety that we may be called to change our lives, resentment at the demand on our time, energy, emotions and resources.
If we are honest with ourselves, we can understand why the crowd wanted Bartimaeus to be quiet. They were walking along with Jesus, maybe listening to his teachings, perhaps feeling a kind of peace that they had never known. They wanted that moment to go on forever. Instead, the loud cries of a beggar reminded them of the world and all its injustice and suffering. His shouts called them to see his humanity and do something to help him.
They didn’t want to be disrupted and they didn’t want to do anything. So instead, they became gatekeepers, shutting down someone who needed Jesus’ help.
But what they forgot, and what we too often forget, is that the healing and the help does not ultimately come from us. Yes, we are called to open our hearts to others, and witness their suffering. Yes, we are called to respond and help, and, yes, we may feel overwhelmed at times.
But we don’t have to rely on our own resources. Jesus is ready to stop and listen to us. Sometimes we are overtly in need like Bartimaeus. Sometimes we don’t appear to be in need, but are in fact overwhelmed and anxious. Sometimes we may actually be doing pretty well and our calling is to seek help for others. Our role is to turn to him, and ask for help—daily, hourly, moment by moment – for ourselves and for others.
Notice that when Bartimaeus springs up and goes to Jesus, Jesus asks him what he wants him to do for him. I love that because he honors Bartimaeus’ autonomy and dignity—he doesn’t assume he has the answer for him, that blindness is his obvious problem. He trusts that Bartimaeus knows what he needs, and he allows him the dignity of naming the solution for himself. What if social services worked that way?
The message of this gospel is to ask for what you need in every given situation and listen to the cries of others who are in need. Through the grace of God, you will be healed and you will be strengthened to serve others. Notice that this story ends with Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way. It will be his turn next to bring someone to Jesus for healing.
All of us are in need of healing, and all of us have the ability to help others heal.
Matthew Shepard’s death was a piercing cry for help for a group of people who have been marginalized and victimized for so long. Through the grace of God, those who stopped and listened to that cry have been able to make a tremendous difference over the last 20 years. His family found healing in responding to that cry for help.
Through the grace of God, we too will find healing, and strength to help others if we trust God and ask for what we need today and every day.