Call Them Here

The text is Mark 10:46-52

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.

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.

Bartimaeus’ Empowerment

William Blake [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Today’s gospel reading from the Daily Lectionary introduces us to Bartimaeus, a blind panhandler healed by Jesus in the final days before his crucifixion (Mark10:46-52). When he heard that Jesus was passing by, Bartimaeus started raising his voice, calling upon Jesus to do that which he was meant to do as King David’s anointed heir: liberate his people from oppression. The Temporarily Able-Bodied (TAB) people in the crowd wished this disabled nuisance and general drain-on-the-economy would just shut up and go back to being invisible.

But Jesus, for his part, stopped the parade and listened to the shouts that everyone else wished they weren’t hearing. Begrudgingly, the general public acknowledged to Bartimaeus that his appeal for freedom had been heard.

And when Bartimaeus finally did gain an audience with David’s heir, what happened? One would think that the chosen liberator would know exactly what to do on behalf of an uneducated societal reject. However, that’s not the route that Jesus took:

The Liberator wanted to hear Bartimaeus speak for himself.

Instead of prescribing, Jesus asked what he could do to help. And when the big, miraculous moment came, the Liberator refused to take credit. Instead, Jesus chalked up Bartimaeus’ newfound wellness to that which was already within him.

What kind of anointed Liberator is this?

Are we seeing clearly?

Your Faith Has Made You Well

Malala Yousafzai. Image by Mohsin Ali. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

Many of you, like me, have probably heard the news these past few weeks about this brave young woman from Pakistan: Malala Yousafzai.  Malala is a 14 year old who was shot on her school bus by a Taliban extremist because she had the audacity to go to school.  Remarkably, she survived this attack and is currently recovering in the United Kingdom with no signs of brain damage.  Her father commented that she has asked for her schoolbooks to be sent so that she can continue her studies while she recovers in hospital.

What’s even more amazing about Malala is that she, at age 14, has already made an international name for herself as an outspoken activist for education and women’s rights in her home country.  Desmond Tutu nominated her for the International Children’s Peace Prize.  At the age of 11, she began writing a blog for the BBC about life under Taliban rule which she used to propagate her views on women’s education.  Her current plan is to return home to Pakistan after she gets well and continue her activism, in spite of the risks.

People the world over have rightly expressed support and admiration for Malala.  Here is a young woman who has found within herself the strength to break the chains of oppression and inequality forged by the narrow views of religious extremists in her country.  That inner strength: the power to live free, even in the midst of bondage, is what I think of whenever I hear the word “faith”.  And that’s why I would not hesitate to say to Malala what Jesus says to Bartimaeus in today’s gospel reading: “Your faith has made you well.”

Before I go on, let me pause and unpack what I mean by that.  Obviously, Malala herself has not yet been “made well” in a physical sense after her attack.  However, that word in Greek, “made well”, is sozo and is often translated “heal” or “save”.  Older translations of this passage read, “Your faith has saved you.”  To the ancient Jews, the idea of “salvation” or “being saved” had a lot to do with liberation and “being set free”.  So, with that little bit of linguistic and cultural nuance in mind, it would not be much of a stretch at all to read this passage as: “Your faith has made you free.”  And that idea would most certainly apply to Malala right now.  Her resolve to live free, even in the midst of oppression, has made her free indeed, no matter what those others might say or do to keep her subservient or “in her place”.  Malala is free and there’s nothing the Taliban can do to change that.  So, I say to her, “Malala, your faith has made you well.”

The figure Bartimaeus in today’s gospel reading comes across as a person similar to Malala in several key respects.  First of all, Bartimaeus is a second-class citizen in the society where he lives.  When we first meet him, he is seated “by the roadside” as Jesus as his entourage pass by.  This is more than just a physical location.  It’s meant to tell us something.  Bartimaeus is a person who has been “sidelined” or “cast aside” by mainstream society.  Social scientists refer to this as being “marginalized” or “placed into the margins” of society’s consciousness.  Bartimaeus is a panhandler who, in a world without social services and safety nets, must depend on the kindness of strangers for his daily bread.  Can you imagine how belittling and dehumanizing it must have felt for him to have to be grateful and beholden to the well-off benefactors who tossed him a coin, maybe made a sarcastic comment, and then went home to families, servants, and stocked cupboards?  That’s the life of a panhandler.  Toss aside any romantic notions you might have about riding the rails from California to New York Island like Woody Guthrie.  The life of a panhandler, in ancient Judea or in contemporary America, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hobbes).

The next thing we can see in the text is that Bartimaeus can’t see, he is blind.  His disability gives us what is most likely the primary reason for his status as a panhandler.  But the most overlooked indicator of his marginalized status is his name, or lack thereof.  The text tells us that he is “Bartimeaus, son of Timaeus”.  Sounds simple enough, right?  Maybe they just called him “Bart” for short?  But consider that in Aramaic, the language of first century Judea, the word for “son” is “bar”.  Bar Timaeus, Son of Timaeus.  So, if he is “Son of Timaeus, Son of Timaeus”, then he is literally a man with no name, no personal identity of his own.  Even as an adult, he is still just “Timaeus’ kid”.

Bartimaeus is marginalized because of his disability.  Malala Yousafzai is marginalized because of her gender.  Each, in his or her own way, knows what it’s like to be cast aside, sidelined, and granted second-class citizenship by the powerful.  But the more amazing thing is that each, in his or her own way, has also risen above the chains of marginalization and taken back that stolen human dignity.  We already heard about how Malala is doing it through her activism.  Let’s look at how Bartimaeus is doing it.

First of all, he calls out.  He’s not one of those polite panhandlers who just sits on the sidewalk with his hat out.  He yells at you as you go by.  If anything, this tactic makes you less likely to want to give him money, except that you’re so freaked out by it that you’ll give him almost anything just to keep from yelling.  And let’s take a look at what he’s yelling, exactly.  This is no generalized call for alms.  This guy knows exactly what is going on and is determined to get in on the action.  He yells, “Jesus!  Hey, Jesus!  Yeah, you!  Son of David!  Why don’t you come over here and have some mercy on me?!”  Now, in the text itself, he just says, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  This almost sounds like groveling at first glance, but let’s pull that dense phrase apart, piece by piece.  Bartimaeus calls Jesus by name and addresses him as the “Son of David”.  This was a messianic title.  The anointed one of Israel was said to be a king, descended from the line of old King David: the king who gave the Jewish people their main idea of what an ideal king should be.  It’s kind of the same thing as Abraham Lincoln being held up as the model of what an ideal president should be.  Furthermore, the phrase “have mercy on me” is not so much a plea as it is a call for a superior to do his or her duty.  By saying, “have mercy on me,” Bartimaeus is implying that Jesus owes him something.  So, if we were to put this in American terms, imagine the president’s motorcade making its way down a city street where a panhandler has his hat out.  As the president’s limo goes by, the panhandler shouts over the notes of Hail to the Chief, “Hey!  Mr. President!  If you’re so much like Abraham Lincoln, then why don’t come over here and give me my Emancipation Proclamation!  You owe me, man!”  That’s what this guy Bartimaeus is saying to Jesus as he walks by.

Now, the crowd around Bartimaeus, as we might expect in this situation, is shocked and offended.  They’re embarrassed for their city, that the Messiah would receive such uncivil treatment by the dregs of society here.  So, they’re telling him to “shut up” and maybe calling him names like “dirty hobo” or “lazy bum”.  They want him to keep his place and be grateful for what they choose to give him out of their surplus.  But Bartimaeus isn’t listening to them.  He’s still shouting.  In fact, he starts shouting even louder than before!  He shouts so loudly, in fact, that his verbal jabs reach the ears of their intended target, Jesus himself.  Jesus stops in his tracks, turns around, and calls Bartimaeus over.  Let’s imagine that again in present-day presidential imagery.  On CNN, we see the motorcade go by with the panhandler shouting so rudely and people shouting back at him.  Suddenly, the president’s limousine slows to a stop, the backseat window roles down, and one of the Secret Service agents runs over.  The Secret Service agent says something into his headset and takes a step back.  On our TVs at home, all we see is the president’s hand emerging through the car window, pointing directly to the noisy pan-handler, and gesturing for him to approach the car.  The panhandler does so, and there’s a remarkable change in his demeanor.  He never thought his cries would be heard, he just wanted to vent and get them off his chest while he had the opportunity.  After all, there might have been any number of so-called “Messiahs” coming through his town recently, each one promising peace and security to the Jews, but not a single one had ever done a single thing for a lousy bum like Bartimaeus.  But this Jesus guy suddenly seemed very different from the others, just by having the nerve to stop and call him over.

Let’s leave our presidential analogy and finish this story in its first century Judean setting.  Bartimaeus walks up to Jesus and Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?”  In effect, he’s asking, “What is it that I am supposed to have owed you?”  Bartimaeus responds in a very different tone than the one in which he started.  He addresses Jesus respectfully as “my teacher” and then pours out the one deepest desire in his heart that had been there so long and yet seemed so impossible to obtain.  He didn’t want more money or higher social status.  He wanted to receive back the one thing that was taken away by his disability: his human dignity.  He wanted the opportunity to live and not just merely survive anymore.  He wanted to count as a real person again and not just an object by the side of the road.  “My teacher,” he said, “let me see again.”  And Jesus gives him exactly what he’s asking for.

But Jesus isn’t done surprising people, yet.  He’s still got another ace up his sleeve.  When the miracle is done, Jesus refuses to take credit for it, even though he was clearly the responsible party.  Jesus says to Bartimaeus, “Go; your faith has made you well.”  Jesus claims that Bartimaeus is the one who gets credit for this healing!  Where others saw only an offensive and disrespectful panhandler, Jesus saw in Bartimaeus the faith that has the power to change things: the power to bring healing, wholeness, and freedom in the coming kingdom of God.  Like Malala Yousafzai, Bartimaeus had the kind of inner strength that allowed him to live freely, even in the midst of oppression and marginalization.  He held onto his defiant hope, even in his apparently hopeless situation and so won for himself the prize that seemed so distant and unobtainable.  Many have said the same thing of Malala.

What about you?  Where do you experience your marginalization, your woundedness?  Where have you been sidelined, cast aside, or treated like a second-class citizen?  Obviously, none of us in this church has ever been a school-age girl in a third world country or a blind panhandler in first century Judea, but each and every one of us has a place where hurt, loss, rejection, and grief have dug their arrows deep into our hearts and left us bleeding internally.  Our polite, success-driven society teaches us to minimize, hide, or ignore these facts about our nature, but I believe that the gospel of Christ empowers us to face those hurts, show them, and use them for the healing of the world.  Without those wounds, we would not know what empathy is.  We would not know how to care for one another.  How would a little child know to bring a crying playmate a soft toy to hug if that first child had never needed comfort from a favorite teddy bear after falling and skinning a knee?  We all recognize pain because we have all experienced pain.  There is no way to go through this life without being hurt.  What each of us has to decide is whether we will hide our pain under a hardened bushel of social propriety and defensiveness or if we will let that pain shine like the light of a city on a hill.  Will we face the pain and let it become a fountain of empathy and compassion?  That’s the basic principle upon which all self-help support groups work: one person taking his or her experience of pain and putting it to use in helping others through their pain.  That’s the only way we humans can find meaning in the midst of so much meaningless suffering in this world: we have to pay attention to how that pain changes us.  Does it make us more gentle, more compassionate, more wise, more attentive to others?  If so, then we can say that our pain has meaning.  If not, then our pain is meaningless and no amount of explanation will ever answer the agonizing question, “Why did this have to happen to me?”

The last thing we hear from Bartimaeus in the gospel comes after he has received his sight.  The text says that he “followed [Jesus] on the way.”  That’s a remarkable ending.  Do remember where Bartimaeus was when we first met him?  He was “by the roadside.”  Where is he now?  He is “on the way.”  His experience has been transformed.  He’s no longer marginalized.  He’s included in the community.  He’s not an object anymore.  He’s a person now.  He’s “on the way.”  He probably has no idea where he’s going, but by golly, I bet it’ll be interesting!

Malala Yousafzai also has a future that has yet to be written.  No one knows what awaits her when she returns to Pakistan, but she has promised to continue in her fight for women’s education in her country.  She has taken her crude and raw experience of pain and marginalization and refined it into fuel for the engine of equality.  Thus, her suffering has meaning, no matter how senseless and meaningless its cause was.

What will you do with your pain?  Hide it under a bushel or let it shine?  Will it fuel your bitterness or your compassion?  Will you sit back and do what’s expected by our pain-phobic society or will you stand up, be bold, and find in yourself the faith that empowers you to live freely in the midst of oppression?  Find this, and you will hear Jesus saying to you also: “Your faith has made you well.”