October 29, 2018
As many know, I am loathe to write out my homilies. Today, I felt compelled to do so. I share it with you.
Homily for the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time
October 28, 2018
Church of St Paul the Apostle, NYC
Gospel: Mark 10:46-52
At the end of the last century, following my assignment here at St. Paul’s in New York City, I was transferred to the campus ministry at St. John XXIII University Parish on the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. For nine years, I had the privilege to minister alongside the late, and great, Dr. Ruth Queen Smith.
Ruth Queen as we called her was a native of Nashville and was in charge of adult education, Bible Study, R.C.I.A., and Children’s Liturgy of the Word at the parish. Ruth Queen’s African-American family became Catholic when she was just 13. A Syracuse University graduate, she was one of first female news photographers at the local NBC affiliate, the same station where Oprah Winfrey got her start. In her late 30s, she developed multiple sclerosis and lupus and had to give up her job as she began to lose her eyesight. She decided to turn to her love of education and came to the University of Tennessee to get her doctorate
When I arrived in Tennessee, she had just given up her car and stopped driving. Shortly thereafter, she needed a cane to navigate the streets. Ultimately, she had a seeing-eye dog, Lola, who became her constant companion. She and Lola were a great team and a familiar sight in the UT neighborhood. When Ruth would get tired of being at a boring meeting, Lola knew to start yawning or act like she needed to go for a walk.
Even though Ruth was losing her eyesight, she studied scripture more and more. When Ruth first offered Bible Study, no one would show up. While the rest of us would just cancel the class, Ruth remained steadfast and would be in the library studying the Bible by herself. Finally, someone joined her, then a small group, and finally her Bible Study was so big we didn’t have a room big enough! Ruth had a way of making the scriptures come alive, and her joy of the Gospels was contagious, despite all her physical ailments.
Ruth told me that more than once, while she had been out in public, minding her own business, young, zealous, evangelical Christians would come up to her and ask if they could lay hands on her to heal her of her blindness. She agreed, even though she wondered about the motivations of the healer, as it would teach a lesson in humility. And she took particular satisfaction when the healing didn’t occur. She would look at the crest fallen healer and just shrug her shoulders. If the miracle worker had thought to ask Ruth in advance, they would have heard her story of faith which was miracle enough for her.
I think of Ruth on this day when we hear the story of the blind Bartimaeus. Like Ruth, he wasn’t merely asking for the gift of physical sight, he was asking for something much deeper, namely insight and faith. In the scriptures, believing is the deepest form of seeing. In addition, Bartimaeus recognizes Jesus as the messiah by calling him “Son of David.” Those around him were sure that Jesus didn’t want to be bothered by a lowly beggar, a second class citizen. “Be silent,” they tell him. Bartimaeus doesn’t heed. Bartimaeus expresses his need for the mercy of God and he immediately sees. “Go on your way” Jesus says to him, “Your faith has saved you.” In his healing, Bartimaeus chooses rather to join Jesus on “The Way” which is the path of Christian discipleship.
What a contrast to last week’s Gospel. In this interchange, Jesus asks Bartimaeus the exact same question he posed to James and John: “What do you want me to do for you?” James and John ask for a job promotion and an elevation in status and honor. Bartimaeus asks for sight. Whereas the Rich Young Man in the scriptures cannot follow Jesus because he has too many possessions, Bartimaeus abandons his cloak, the only thing he has, to follow Jesus. And whereas the disciples dismiss Jesus’s admission of impending suffering and death, Bartimaeus has no hesitation in joining Jesus on his final journey to Jerusalem and Calvary. His faith is the miracle that heals him and he lives his lives his faith joyously, to the chagrin of those who were hand picked by Jesus to be his apostles!
We need people like Bartimaeus and Ruth Queen who push back against those who tell us to keep silent, to not see with the eyes of God. This is so critically important after the week that we have just had.
Our neighborhood was subject to three days of bomb scares and evacuations as a fanatic sought to terrorize his political adversaries. In Kentucky, a man gunned down two African Americans at a supermarket following a failed attempt to barge into a black church. At the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, the remains of Matthew Shepherd were laid to rest, not only to honor him and other victims of hate crimes, but to bury him in a safe place protected from those who would seek to desecrate his tomb. Finally, in Pittsburgh yesterday, we witnessed the most unspeakable act of hatred and violence against our Jewish brothers and sisters at the Tree of Life Synagogue where 11 were killed and many injured by a gunman during Sabbath worship. It was the worst act of anti-Semitic violence in the history of the United States.
The Gospel today challenges us, commands us, to ask Jesus to heal us, to give us insight, to cure whatever blindness we have whether it be greed, hatred, political bias, addiction, abuse, institutional protection and so on. And equally important, to free us from the blindness to the hate and fear that is being sown around us and call it out when we encounter it!
We cannot be silent. We must act now to create a world of peace and justice. Jesus, the High Priest, in his great love for us, has sacrificed himself for the forgiveness of our sins. He is present to us in this Eucharist and calls us to healing and wholeness. May we be like the blind Bartimaeus and cry out to Him for timely help in this time of need.
Ruth Queen Smith’s journey to earn her doctorate was a long one. Her dissertation focused on the life of Madame C.J. Walker, a self-taught entrepreneur who sought to empower and educate other African American women in the early 1900s. As always, Ruth’s approach was novel, and her major professor obstructed her path at every turn. While Ruth would never say it, there seemed, at least to me, to be an unspoken racial bias present, and there was definitely no accommodation given for her disability.
Ultimately, she surrendered to the system and put her work in God’s hands. That’s exactly when parishioners stepped up for Ruth, and pointed out to University Officials that respecting her work was in the best interest of the University of Tennessee, whose track record on diversity and disability issues hadn’t always been stellar. We all rejoiced with her when she received her doctorate, but Ruth Queen couldn’t help but joke that her being at a hooding in the South was the biggest irony of them all!
Ruth Queen had taught us well to see with the eyes of faith, and the Body of Christ, both in the Eucharist, and the People of God, would be there for her. In her final days of ministry, when Ruth had completely lost her sight and developed early stages of dementia, the community stepped up again. Ruth Queen would preside at Bible Study for the adults and the children, but now her students would become the teachers … and she and Lola would sit back, and smile! Her journey on The Way was complete!
Paulist Fr. Eric Andrews is president of the Paulist Fathers.