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What Bartimaeus can teach the Church about faith

*This is a sermon I preached for the first time in Arlington, VA in 2021. Since then I have preached a version of it at several churches.*

Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.

When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”

So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Over the past week or so, Bartimaeus and I have become friends. As I spent time with him, reading and rereading this passage, looking at my own blindness, thinking about what Bartimaeus might have to teach me to then teach you, I realized that we often start the sermon on Bartimaeus a hair too late. We move past the point at which Bartimaeus is sitting by the roadside and directly to the point at which he starts calling after Jesus.

Except that’s not where the story starts. If we were to write the script for the Bartimaeus story play, we would start with a little context. We would want the audience to understand that Bartimaeus sits on the roadside a lot. Every day, in fact. As a blind man, he was destined to be a beggar, destined to sit on the side of the road. And while, yes, that is devastating, I like plays and movies that tell the truth of the human experience and that is that we are complex and even complicated.

I’m certain Bartimaeus wants to see. Clearly, later scenes in the same story will show us that. But you know what? I’m also pretty certain that Bartimaeus has grown comfortable sitting on the side of the road.

Lately, I’ve been working with my life coach on ridding myself of unhelpful labels. And, yes, I have a life coach. I am basically as stereotypical of a millennial as they come. That aside, I’ve discovered in working with her that I’ve taken certain parts of my human experience and turned them into labels that I use to define myself. And frankly, most of them are unhelpful.

So why is it so hard to rid myself of them? To walk away from them? To not be limited by them? Because they’re comfortable. They may be harmful, but they are what I know, I’ve operated from within those limitations for a long time and while part of me wants to be free from them, another part of me is quite alright staying comfortably inside their lines.

My guess is that Bartimaeus’s experience was similar. Yes, he wanted to see, to be free from his blindness. But I bet he was also comfortable with the limitations of the experience he knew. Humans are complex, and complicated. I don’t think it’s fair to Bartimaeus or to ourselves to assume that it didn’t take significant bravery and discomfort for him to start calling after Jesus. We often talk about Bartimaeus’s faith in revisiting this story. And faith is a funny word. Faith, too, is complex and complicated. Faith is much closer to hope than it is certainty.

I liked the NIV translation of Hebrews 11:1 because of its use of both of these words. Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

Faith is being certain of what we hope for. We are certain of the outcome we hope for when we reach out in faith and certain that it will be met by that which we do not see, the Divine. But we are never certain that the outcome we hope for will actually be the outcome.

Bartimaeus did not know in calling out to Jesus and causing a scene in a way that was culturally inappropriate and deeply uncomfortable for him that he would be able to see at the end of it all. Acting in faith is uncomfortable. Always. If it’s not, then it’s not faith we’re experiencing. It’s pride. I’m going to repeat that one.

Are you beginning to see more clearly Bartimaeus’s dilemma in this moment of reaching out? “I could stay right here on this roadside. This is what I know. And there is safety in that. Comfort in that. Or I could call after Jesus. Cause a scene. People will talk. I might even be harmed in the process. And all for what? I honestly don’t know. Of course, I might be able to see but I don’t know that. Is it worth it?”

He decided that it was. But it wasn’t smooth sailing from there. Many sternly ordered him to be quiet. Can you imagine how scary that must have been for him? Honestly, I would have strongly considered giving up at that point. But he kept going, Son of David, have mercy on me!

Then scripture says: Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” Jesus stood still and waited. He didn’t go to him. He didn’t heal him from afar. Maybe Jesus knew that Bartimaeus still needed a moment to fully own this apparently rash decision he had made to call after Jesus. Maybe that he needed a moment to come to terms with the quite literal steps of faith he was taking—discomfort and bravery, hesitation and hope. But Jesus gave him the time to work that out. To walk toward him.

Bartimaeus threw off his cloak and sprang up. Perhaps out of excitement. Perhaps out of nervousness. Perhaps because Jesus was now waiting on him. We don’t know.

What we do know is that Jesus stood still and waited for him.

Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Does anything stand out to you there? Because what stood out to me is that Jesus did not say, your faith has returned to you your sight. Go now that you can see. No, he says your faith has made you well. Sure, your sight is returned to you but more importantly your messy faith, your imperfect faith because faith is always imperfect—has made you well. It has made you well.

I personally believe that the Bartimaeus story is especially important for the church today. You see, the church is somewhere between the roadside and the walk toward Jesus.

For decades, the church has relied on a “come to us” model. With often large and imposing buildings and a purpose that was woven into the very fabric of society, churches could rely on their cultural relevance for growth. They could offer weekly worship, special events, and regular programming and people would just show up because that’s what people did. You could participate in church life but only if you did it according to the parameters and the terms set by the church.

Whether we want to admit it or not, this “come to us” model hasn’t worked very well for the church for a while. The world had changed around it but frankly until the advent of the global pandemic the church had been mostly content sitting on the side of the road. It opted for the comfort of the status quo over the awkwardness of faith even when the status quo resulted in increasingly empty pews and a growing disconnect with younger generations.

The story starts with the roadside. But then there is the disruption. In Bartimaeus’s case, the arrival of Jesus and the disciples, which for the first time perhaps let him dream of a new reality, of what might be possible.

The disruption of the pandemic, with all of its ugliness and devastation and grief, has also allowed many churches to dream of a new reality, of what might be possible. But will we call out for Jesus and take those first awkward steps of faith, even in the midst of self-doubt and fear, certain only in our hopes but never the outcome? Or will we call out and then allow ourselves to be hushed by the angry crowd? Or will we take a few steps and then return to the safety of the roadside?

Will the church be willing to walk away from how things have been done for so long? To risk and revisit and reconsider? I believe this is the church’s opportunity to no longer insist that others come to us but instead to meet them where they are. To go to them. Using all of the tools available to it, including digital tools like virtual worship, and websites, and texting, and social media. I believe Jesus is standing still and waiting patiently. Understanding that if it wants healing, if it wants to be well, the church must throw down its cloak, spring up, and start walking. However wobbly its steps are.

The conversation about the future of the church right now is often overly simplified. Those who embrace this new concept of virtual worship and digital ministry only recognize the potential, the possibilities, the positive. Those who are hesitant only see the fear, the frustration, and the risk of failure. But like Bartimaeus, like all of us, the church is complicated and complex. Getting up off the roadside and walking toward Jesus will be all of those things. Exciting and hope-filled, terrifying and frustrating.

And we cannot know the outcome. We cannot know if our sight will be returned to us. But we can be certain of our hopes, and we can be certain of "That Which We Do Not See". And here’s the promise, that whether or not we get the thing we hoped for in exactly the way we hoped for it, we will be made well.

The church must get up off of the roadside and start walking, not for Jesus. Not for the many people crowded around it watching. But for itself. For its own healing and well-being.

May we not be stuck on that roadside. May we be Bartimaeus. May we be made well.

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