This sermon was first preached at the First Congregational Church in Kalamazoo, MI on October 28, 2018. You can listen to the recording here.
When I moved to Vancouver to attend seminary, I began what I assumed would be a long process of finding a church to attend regularly. I did research and came up with a list of about ten churches to check out, and how to get to each of them on public transportation.
The first one I visited was a small Presbyterian church near campus. I showed up a little early, and when I walked into the lobby and received a bulletin from the usher, I overheard a conversation happening in Japanese. I turned to the two women, one of whom was a white woman, and introduced myself in Japanese. It turned out that the white woman, Jeannette, also grew up as a missionary kid in Japan, and her mother Beth, who also attended the church, remembered my parents as colleagues. It was an unexpected sense of home in this new church and new city.
Then, when I walked into the sanctuary, I saw the only two people I knew in Vancouver—a young couple who hosted me in their home when I first visited the seminary almost a year before. Their basement apartment with wool sweaters hanging on a drying rack and homemade granola cooling on the kitchen table, had been a big part of my initial impression that Vancouver and this seminary could feel like home
I didn’t visit any of the other churches on my list. I had found my church home, and sometimes I still marvel at how I landed in the right place at the right time that Sunday morning.
The story of Bartimaeus is also a story of someone being in the right place at the right time. This man was not seeking for Jesus, but he was paying attention. I imagine his daily routine involved donning his cloak and walking, maybe with some assistance, but maybe on his own to a familiar spot on the side of the road where he could expect some traffic. When your livelihood depends on the generosity of strangers, you position yourself to encounter as many strangers as possible.
So, Bartimaeus positions himself every day on the side of a road where plenty of people pass by, and even if he doesn’t see them, he hears, and he pays attention. He pays attention to the density of the crowd—how many people are passing, and at what pace? Is now a good time to speak up and get someone’s attention, or would it be a waste of energy?
He pays attention to familiar patterns. The jingle of coins on the belt of that one person who always leaves a coin in his cup. The heavy footfalls of the angry person who sometimes kicks his cup over.
And he pays attention to the conversation of people passing by. One of the advantages of being practically invisible to the crowd is that he overhears all the gossip. He knows who is sick and who is losing money. He knows all the local scandals. He knows who is causing a buzz. He pays attention.
So, when the crowds are dense and loud and excited, and he hears someone mention a name that has been coming up frequently in overheard conversations, Bartimaeus is paying attention. Jesus is passing by. Jesus, who has been healing people. Jesus, who teaches with an unprecedented authority. Jesus, who people are calling the long-awaited king, the Messiah.
He wastes no time calling out, making noise, doing all in his power to get Jesus to notice him.
The way that Bartimaeus recognizes Jesus and calls out to him as “Son of David,” is significant in the section of Mark. Two chapters before this, Jesus encounters a different, unnamed man who is blind. Jesus heals him, but it doesn’t happen on the first try—it is the only time in the gospels when it takes Jesus two attempts to heal someone.
And then, in Chapters 8, 9 and 10, there are a whole series of stories about people—mostly the disciples—completely misunderstanding Jesus and failing to recognize who he is and what he is about. Three of the disciples even see Jesus transfigured and hear a voice from heaven call Jesus “my Son, the beloved,” and urge them “Listen to him,” and they still don’t. As Jesus points again and again toward Jerusalem and the death awaiting him there, the disciples do not grasp what is going on. They cannot see Jesus for who he is.
But Bartimaeus does. Bartimaeus calls him the “Son of David”—the rightful ruler. And in an echo of last week’s passage, when James and John approach Jesus and ask him to do whatever they ask, Jesus invites Bartimaeus close and asks him, “what do you want me to do for you?”
“Let me see again,” Bartimaeus replies. It is a stark contrast from James and John, who asked Jesus for positions of power. “Let me see again.”
Jesus says “Go, your faith has made you well.”
This is the most significant moment in the whole interaction to me, because this is the moment when it becomes hardest for me to imitate Jesus. I have learned over the years to listen to voices from the margins. I am getting better at asking what people need, and helping them get those needs met. But it is very hard to help people with no strings attached.
Especially with someone like Bartimaeus, who has demonstrated his ability to pay attention, seize a moment, and who recognizes Jesus better than the closest of the twelve disciples. This guy is a keeper! This is exactly the kind of person Jesus must want as a follower. But instead of issuing the invitation, instead of seizing the moment to secure a new follower, Jesus proclaims that Bartimaeus is completely free to determine his next step.
This is a posture we try very hard to take in this church. It’s part of why we offer our building for the use of community groups free of cost or expectation. It’s part of why we have the Deacon’s Fund as a means of responding quickly and effectively to people in crisis. We don’t serve our community in these ways so that they will feel obligated to join our church membership. We serve our community in this way because Jesus loves them, and so we want to love them, and care for their needs the best that we can with our available resources.
The mission of the church is to demonstrate God’s love to the world, and God’s love never comes with strings attached. Jesus is always telling people to “Go,” after he heals them. And they usually do. They go to their homes, their home towns, their places of worship. They go rejoicing, and praising God and giving thanks. Sometimes they go without giving thanks. Sometimes they probably go back to bad circumstances or old habits. Some of them probably go and forget about Jesus all together. Jesus doesn’t serve people to recruit them, he serves them to set them free to go where they choose.
But Bartimaeus doesn’t go. Bartimaeus follows. And even though Mark doesn’t tell us any more than that, I believe that as his sight was restored, Bartimaeus recognized home in the face of Jesus, and in the company of those disciples. Many scholars believe that the reason Bartimaeus is named in this story is because he is someone that the early Christians who heard this gospel would have known. Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus—that saint of the church, that faithful trustee, or lay preacher, that Sunday school teacher or committee chair we all know. Bartimaeus, who started as a blind beggar, and followed Jesus on the way.
Sometimes the journey to find a church home or a faith home is short and sweet, like my stumble into exactly the right church on my first Sunday in Vancouver. More often it’s a long journey of searching and waiting and trying places on for size. Sometimes there is the pain of rejection along the way, or betrayal, or disappointment. But I know that many people in this room have experienced that recognition of home, in this congregation and in other places in their past. One of the privileges of being a pastor in this church is hearing some of those stories. Stories of the moment when this church felt like home.
And what encourages me as your pastor is how many of you recognize this church as your home, because this church is doing the work you also want to do. When we make the decision to extend God’s love with no strings attached, we take a risk. Inviting organizations and community groups to use our building free of cost of expectation is a risky move. We put our resources and our time on the line to serve our community.
But our hope is that as we serve, as we follow Jesus on this way set before us, that others who are also seeking to follow Jesus will recognize our way and recognize this as home.
If you are a visitor this morning, if you have come in search of healing; if you have come for space to grieve, or if you have come in need of help, please know that you are welcome here. We want to know you, and love you and offer what help we can. With no strings attached.
But if you are here because you recognize this as home, we need you all in. The way Jesus calls us to follow demands our whole lives. We are not a church that says one thing on Sunday mornings and then forgets about God the rest of the week. This is a church that follows Jesus every single day of the week.
Over the coming weeks, you will be hearing from many leaders in our congregation, issuing invitations to stewardship. Stewardship means following Jesus. Stewardship is a fancy church word for letting Jesus’s values impact the way we spend our resources, our money, our time, our energy, our imagination and our love.
If this is your church home, I invite you to spend the next week recalling that moment of recognition. When did you know that this was the right home for you? What did you see people doing? What did you hear was happening? And how is God calling you, in the coming year, to reinvest yourself in the work of this church. How are you called to extend God’s love with no strings attached, and how can we do that work together?