Many of you know that, before I moved to Schuyler, I spent a year living in Las Cruces, New Mexico, doing my final year internship at Peace Lutheran Church. Las Cruces is in the way south part of New Mexico, just north of El Paso, Texas, which makes it less than an hour from “old” Mexico. It was an awesome and eye-opening experience to get to live in the borderlands for a whole year.
One of the most important things I got to do at Peace during my year there was to help develop a refugee hospitality ministry. We welcomed some of the many, many people from Central America who have come to the US seeking safety from dangerous situations in their home countries. These folks presented themselves to Border Patrol for asylum, and after processing them – getting their information, contacting their sponsor, and giving them an ankle monitor and a court date – ICE actually would actually drop them off right at the door of the church. And we’d take it from there.
Most of these folks were only with us for a few days. Our job was to help connect them with their sponsors around the country and make travel arrangements. In the meanwhile, we fed them, and gave them clothes, a chance to shower, and a place to sleep. And above all, we were just kind to them.
It was a very impactful ministry. And if I’m being honest, I think that the people most impacted by the ministry were actually the members of the congregation. There was a lot of apprehension about even starting this ministry – some worried we might end up welcoming drug dealers or other criminals; others worried that this ministry would suck up resources and volunteers that we just couldn’t spare. Before we started, these people crossing the border were just a nameless, faceless mass of needy strangers. But as we started meeting them and learning their stories, they became much more human, much more individual. We met exhausted dads with cranky toddlers and teenagers and nursing mothers. And it was so awesome to get to watch volunteers try out the few words of Spanish they knew with our guests, to see the delighted smiles and hear the laughter as people connected with each other on just a sheerly human level.
I found myself remembering all these things as I was reading our gospel lesson for today. In this story, Jesus and his disciples are in Jericho – just outside Jerusalem – and they encounter a stranger in need. The story of blind Bartimaeus is one that most of us are probably familiar with already. It follows a familiar pattern: a person struggling with some kind of illness or demon cries out to Jesus for help, and Jesus has compassion for them and heals them.
But as I read through the story this time, one line really jumped out and grabbed my attention. Jesus hears blind Bartimaeus cry out and he calls him over and he says to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus doesn’t just assume that he knows what blind Bartimaeus wants from him. He asks him. He engages him in conversation, as an equal. In Jesus’ eyes, “blind Bartimaeus” is just Bartimaeus – and he treats him like a fellow human being, worthy of dignity and respect.
I find this really comforting. The way that Jesus treats Bartimaeus underscores just how much God loves each of us. To Jesus, we’re not just a bunch of hopeless cases and lost causes to feel pity for. We are human beings – humans who make mistakes and suffer grief and loneliness and hurt. We are humans who still deserve dignity and loving care, because God has decided it should be so. God draws near to us and draws us into conversation. Jesus asks each one of us, “What do you want me to do for you?” And he listens to us, just as he did to Bartimaeus. Jesus takes our needs and our dreams and our lives seriously, and he encourages us to take all these things to God in prayer.
Bartimaeus answers Jesus’ question, “What do you want me to do for you?” He says, “My teacher, let me see again!” and Jesus says to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” And immediately, Bartimaeus’ sight returns and he becomes a follower of Jesus.
There is an interesting irony to this story. Jesus restores sight to a blind man who wants to see again. And when he does so, he is also working to heal the spiritual blindness of the people around him: the crowds and even his disciples. It’s clear from the way that other people were treating Bartimaeus that they didn’t see him as a human being worthy of dignity and compassion, as Jesus did. He was just some blind vagrant looking for a handout. Jesus was their very important teacher who had much more important things to do than waste time on this guy. And so when Bartimaeus starts crying out to Jesus for mercy and help, they “sternly order him to be quiet.”
Jesus speaks to him, and he models a sense of kindness and hospitality for his disciples to follow. He shows them that all human beings deserve our compassion and respect, and that we can engage in conversation – and even relationship – with people who seem very different from us. He shows them that all human beings are, well, human! I like to imagine that as the disciples began to live into this teaching, they came to know the same kind of joy that the people of my internship congregation did – joy in connecting with people from extremely different backgrounds, and finding kinship and a sense of solidarity with people whose struggles we couldn’t even begin to imagine.
Another bit of irony to this passage is that the story that immediately follows it is the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus rolls into Jerusalem with an entire caravan of his followers – and at first, they are welcomed with palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna!” Jesus preaches and teaches to the people a message of love above all else. But when he is eventually arrested, the people turn on him, his followers abandon him, and the Roman authorities put him to death.
Like most of the gospel witness, the story of the crucifixion and the story of blind Bartimaeus both show a strong contrast between the way Jesus thinks and acts and the way that even his closest followers think and act. Jesus is constantly working to open the eyes and the hearts of the people following him. And that includes us. I think the story of Bartimaeus invites all of us to reflect on where in our lives we might be experiencing some spiritual blindness. Who are the people in our lives we might like to sternly order to be quiet – and how can we listen as Jesus would? Who are the people crying out who might be in need of our kindness and hospitality, and how can we serve them with dignity?
I know that St. John’s is a generous and servant-hearted community. Next Sunday, we will be blessing and sending over 200 health and school kits and Lord-knows-how-many quilts. Perhaps this text is an invitation to go even deeper into the way we serve others. Who are the people who benefit from our ministry, what are their stories? What led them to be in a situation of need in the first place? Where can we begin to build those relationships of joy and solidarity with people in our own community?
Jesus opens our eyes to see the world through the lens of God’s love. And through this lens, we can see others who need our kindness, who deserve to be treated with dignity, just as God sees us. We can go forward confidently in our ministry, with open eyes and open hearts, knowing that – like Bartimaeus – our faith will make us well.