I’ve recently been invited to help my friend, Minister Pamela Robinson of Emerging HOPE Ministries, with her doctoral dissertation. It’s been a privilege to assist with this project because the work she’s doing is so important. The research she is doing is about helping churches raise their awareness of people who live with mental illness or developmental disabilities. Her very helpful term for these conditions is “invisible disabilities”. She calls these disabilities “invisible” because their presence in people is less obvious than a visual or mobility impairment.
There is a stigma around cognitive disabilities in this culture because, in the eyes of many people, mental illness doesn’t count as a “real” disease, like cancer or the flu. Many of us who live with mental illness are often told to “just snap out of it” or “have faith” (as if depression or anxiety could be controlled by flipping a switch). Believe me: if any of us could choose to stop having these symptoms, WE WOULD.
Under the weight of this social stigma, we who live with mental illness often become “invisible people” who suffer silently and alone from the effects of our conditions. We are treated as failures, ne’er-do-wells, and misfits in a society that measures the “worth” of a person based on his or her ability to produce and consume in a capitalist economy.
In this morning’s gospel, we encounter the story of a person, Bartimaeus, who was similarly “invisible” to the people of his own place and time.
There are several things it is important to note about Bartimaeus as a person. First of all, his name. In Aramaic, it literally means “son of Timaeus”, which is to say that he really doesn’t have a name or unique identity of his own. He is only identified in relation to other people. As a physically disabled (“blind”) non-worker in the economy (“beggar”), Bartimaeus doesn’t count as a “real person” in the eyes of his neighbors, so he has been pushed to the margins of society (“by the roadside”), where his presence and voice can be conveniently ignored (“Many sternly ordered him to be quiet”).
Yet, there is more to Bartimaeus than meets the eye on the surface. He might be visually impaired, but we the readers quickly learn that his spiritual insight goes deeper than that of his neighbors. He sees Jesus more clearly than anyone. As Jesus draws near, Bartimaeus begins to make quite a fuss, calling out to Jesus as the “Son of David”.
“Son of David” is a messianic title, referring to King David’s heir, God’s anointed, and the rightful king of Israel. Many have speculated about Jesus’ identity up to this point in Mark’s gospel, St. Peter has even realized the truth in private, but this is the first time in Mark that anyone, anywhere publicly identifies Jesus as the Messiah.
What Bartimaeus says to his Messiah next is “have mercy on me!” This sounds to us like a plea for forgiveness, but is actually more like a welcoming affirmation. Caesar used to enter the city of Rome in triumphant procession with the citizenry crying “Lord, have mercy!” around him on every side. It’s kind of like an ancient version of “Hail to the Chief” or “God Save the Queen”. Bartimaeus has something unique to teach his people: he knows who Jesus really is, but they don’t want to hear it, so they yell at him to sit back down and be quiet.
Sadly, this story is way too familiar for many of our brothers and sisters who live with disabilities, visible or invisible, in the church. As human institutions, churches often act like the crowd around Bartimaeus: ignoring and objectifying disabled people, pushing them to the edges of church life and telling them not to make too much of a fuss, so that business-as-usual can continue uninterrupted on Sunday morning. What these churches don’t realize is that every person is made uniquely in the image of God, therefore each individual has something to teach the rest of us about God that cannot be learned from anyone else on earth. Those who lose the most when disabled people are ignored are not the disabled people themselves, but those who ignore them. So it was with the crowd around Bartimaeus, and so it is in too many churches today.
But the good news is that Jesus is not content to simply walk by while this happens. Jesus listens to the voice of the voiceless and ensures that the lessons they teach will not go unheard. Looking closely at his interaction with Bartimaeus, we can get an idea of how Christ is working with disabled members in the church today, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
To begin with, the first important thing that Jesus does is nothing. He simply stops. The text says he “stood still”. What this tells us is that Jesus is willing to be interrupted by this person. Sure, Jesus is busy. Sure, he has other important things to do (go to Jerusalem and save the world, for instance). But business-as-usual gets put on the back burner for Jesus when it comes to having a relational encounter with this person. Imagine the church doing that! Imagine what Christianity in this world would look like if the leaders of the church were willing to put aside their overcrowded schedules and interrupt business-as-usual in order to listen to the pained cries of needy people.
The second thing Jesus does is say, “Call him here.” He re-arranges his ministry so that the marginalized person sits at the center of the action and concern. And he doesn’t do it alone, either. Jesus could have easily called Bartimaeus over himself, but he enlists the help of the whole community, instead. So then, it is the crowd that changes its tune and says to Bartimaeus, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” Again, imagine the church doing this today: becoming a community that speaks forth Christ’s calling on the lives of the very people whom the world ignores!
The next thing Jesus does is give a voice back to the voiceless. Instead of presuming to know what is best for this other person, Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” This is a very important detail because Jesus is relating to Bartimaeus as a real person, not just as an object or problem to be dealt with. And when the miracle is said and done, Jesus even gives the credit back to Bartimaeus himself: “your faith has made you well.”
Imagine a church focusing its ministry like this: interrupting business-as-usual to forge real, authentic relationships with people whose voices have not yet been heard in the mainstream of society. Imagine the church becoming a community where people are treated like people. Imagine a church that re-orients its entire ministry to put marginalized people at the center of its life and action. Imagine a church that doesn’t just welcome people who live with mental illness, but empowers them to fulfill their calling in Christ. Can you imagine a church like that?
I can imagine that kind of church because that is exactly the kind of ministry that North Presbyterian Church has been doing for the last 27 years. This is who we are. This is what we do. This is the kind of community the Holy Spirit has made us into.
So many of us, myself included, have tried to make our spiritual home in churches where we are tolerated at best, or rejected at worst. But the Holy Spirit has called us together in this little community where we can be a light to the world.
And our ministry is not going unnoticed. What we do here has been written about in college and seminary textbooks. Letters of support have poured in from all over the country. Denominational officials are telling us how we have inspired a movement, how we have shaped the national church, how we are pioneering a new model of ministry from which all churches can learn.
North Church may be a little church, but we are “the biggest little church in Kalamazoo.” Our significance doesn’t come from a huge budget or fancy programs, but from the fact that we are doing the kind of ministry that Jesus demonstrated with Bartimaeus: centered on building relationships with marginalized people who live with mental illness.
The power of the special work we do is rooted in the power of the gospel itself and grows out from it to form a community where all people can find a home.
The power of this church comes from that core truth we tell each other week after week:
“I love you. God loves you. And there’s nothing you can do about it!”
Be blessed and be a blessing.