Getting What We Seek; Giving What We Received

Why do you come to church?

That’s a question we don’t really ask very often, though I think we probably should. It’s a question I’ve asked people at four or five different churches over the last few years. Whenever I got a chance to sit down with someone one-on-one (for this question can actually be somewhat intimate), I would raise this question. Why do you come to church?

I’ve asked dozens of people, and I’ve received a wide range of answers. But I have found that there were four common answers that many people gave: first, lots of folks said they came to church to seek community, a group of people to befriend. Second, many said they came to church to deepen their relationship with God (and that makes sense; we do a lot of God-focused stuff around here!) Third, some people said they came to church in order to reflect on their deepest values, to think about what it means to live a good life and maybe even seek some guidance from the community on how to do that. Finally, many people said they came to church primarily to reconnect to their upbringing: having been raised in the church, they wanted to continue in the culture that was important to their family.

Now, some gave some very different answers, and many people answered with more than one of the reasons listed above, as you’d expect. But the point is that something drew them to church. And something brought you here today. You could have slept in this morning, or gone to brunch, or watched a football game, or even visited a different religious community. But you didn’t. You decided to come here. You have a reason for being here today.

Bartimaeus was certainly drawn to Jesus. We hear in our Gospel passage today that he was adamant and loud in seeking Jesus. And we don’t have to wonder at what drew him to Jesus’s community. He is crystal clear in what he needs: he has lost his sight, and he wants it back. It’s a very direct, clear, physical need. His body has been damaged, and he is seeking healing. He comes to Jesus with this very real need. And, of course, Jesus gives him what he’s looking for, without asking many questions and without making any qualifications. Bartimaeus is healed; no strings attached.

This Jesus—who is always ready to help and heal us at a moment’s notice—is probably very familiar to most of us. I remember, at the church I grew up in, that we had two paintings of Jesus in our narthex (which is what we called the space that joined our sanctuary on one side to our classrooms on the other). The first was very close-in, just of Jesus’s face. He had the nicest, kindest, brightest expression you’ve ever seen. This would be a great picture to have on your website; this Jesus would be the ideal newcomer greeter! And then, around the corner, we had another painting. This one was from a wider angle, further out. Jesus was surrounded by children, holding a lamb that he was petting. Again, he had that same super-kind, super-nice expression on his face—the nicest guy in the world! This is a familiar, comforting Jesus, a Jesus we want to be around, a Jesus we are perhaps eager to go to for help.

And just like Jesus, this church must always be ready to help, to heal, and to support those who join us. Whatever need, desire, or goal you came with today, I hope that we are meeting it. We should. And if we aren’t, I hope you’ll talk to us about how we can better serve you. That’s a huge part of the mission of any Christian church.

But I have to say that this part of our Gospel passage today—the story of Bartimaeus being healed, this part of the story with that familiar, always-helping Jesus, wasn’t what caught my attention this week, as I was reading through it. Honestly, these healing stories are so common in the Gospels, that it is easy for me to go on autopilot once I see one coming: yet another story of Jesus healing. So common, so familiar, so easy to scan through without really paying attention.

It was the very last line of our passage that caught my attention.. The author of the Gospel of Mark writes: “Immediately, he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” “Immediately, Bartimaeus regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way.” Bartimaeus was seeking to have his sight restored, but as I thought more about him, it dawned on me that there was more going on here. I imagined that Bartimaeus had had a whole life before this day: perhaps a spouse and children, a job, a community. But when Bartimaeus lost his sight, he would have lost much, perhaps all, of this. Living in the first century, Bartimaeus would almost certainly have depended on the sense of sight for his livelihood. With his sight gone, he would have lost his job, and perhaps then we would have lost his place in the community. He may even have been pushed from his family. Certainly we know that by the time he has found Jesus, he is begging for food.

Bartimaeus is seeking to regain his sight—but even more than that. He is seeking to regain his whole life back. And so, what I expected was for Bartimaeus to say, after regaining his sight: “Okie dokie Jesus, thanks! See ya later,” and return home so that he could rebuild his life and regain all that he had lost. But this is not what happens. Instead, after his sight is restored, he “follows Jesus on the way.”

Now, this expression, “on the way”, is an interesting choice for the author of this Gospel. At first glance, it could just mean that Bartimaeus followed Jesus, literally: walking with him that day. But it’s worth noting that the early community of Jesus’s followers didn’t call themselves Christians, and they didn’t call their faith “Christianity”—that word was still developing. Instead, as they began to form themselves into a distinct group, they called their community The Way. So when we hear that Bartimaeus followed Jesus “on the way”, it seems likely that we are supposed to understand this on at least two levels: yes, he walked with Jesus and travelled with him that day. But he also joined this new community that was forming around him. Having been healed, Bartimaeus follows the healer, and joins the healer’s work. Having been healed, Bartimaeus takes up the work of healing others.

As I said before, I hope that St. Mark’s is a place where you can be healed, where you can be helped, where you can be supported, where we can help you find whatever it is you are looking for. And again, if we can do better, let us know! But I also hope that, being healed, we begin to ask how we can be healers; that being helped, we seek to be helpers; that being supported, we become supporters. I hope that, having received the gift, having received what we need, we will go out into the world attentive to what others need and are seeking. I think that’s what we can learn from Bartimaeus: that we can hear the same God who gives to us calling us to give to others. Amen.