In the last week I came across no less than four articles (which I can’t find again…sorry) about how people are not going to church at the rates they were before covid. One had some stats, I think, but the others were more anecdotal. It seems a bit like there was the state of the church Before Covid (BC) where people went because why not, and the state of the church After Covid (AC) where people don’t go because why bother. This trend seems supported also by the observation from my college attending child that most people in her classes, when the subject comes up, say that they “were Christian,” but “aren’t anymore.” This is fascinating, as most of them are not very old at all. In previous times, to leave off doing something that might have been a central part of life, something like a religion, would have been a big deal. But in these latter days, it is pretty easily left to one side. So what do people do on Sunday now? Sundays used to be—or so they tried to say but did anyone believe them?—“made for the New York Times.” That time must have been the dark ages though. Now, if you go on Twitter and put in the word “Sunday” one of the first things that comes up is “Self-Care.” Self-Care Sunday is a big deal. It’s the day, apparently, when self-care gets together with “soul-care” which is about letting your soul “catch up to your body,” whatever that means. Anyway, it’s also autumn, so if you’re not sure what to do, some ideas are 1. Take a walk in nature and notice how it’s changing, 2. Put on some warm and comfy clothing, 3. Rest and spend some time relaxing, 4. Enjoy a warm drink, 5. Find a new winter comfort food recipe, 6. Curl up on the sofa with your favorite film, 7. Decorate some pumpkins, and 8. Try out a new hobby.
Where is that big eye freaked out emoji? Decorate “some” pumpkins? How many? With what? But seriously, if that freaks you out as it does me, keep scrolling to discover that “loving yourself first” is one of the key ingredients of self-care Sunday, as well as taking a hot bath and “loving yourself instead of loving the idea of other people loving you.”
It is Sunday, though, and you do have choices about what to do with the day. And one of them could be to contemplate the dry and dusty road that goes from Jericho to Jerusalem, the one that Jesus was walking on in the short, swift, contentious days leading up to his Passion. In his wake came his disciples, of course, and many other people as well. The assembly had scrolled through twitter enough to be thoroughly bored, and so they followed along, hoping that all their enemies would be defeated and life would get lots better really soon. And so, as Jesus emerged from Jericho, a “great crowd” followed him and passed by a beggar sitting by the road. And this beggar was blind. And his name was Bartimaeus.
And that must be curious because though Jesus encountered a lot of people, most of them did not hang around long enough to discover what they should do with their Sunday mornings. Most of them liked to go about in big crowds, streams flowing down those broad dusty roads, looking for amusements and freely dispensing advice to each other about mindfulness and self-care playlists and admonishing one another to “add Granadilla and embrace the softness of life. Soak your feet in Epsom salt and be merry. After all, Sundays are a beauty.”
They chatter loudly, and Bartimaeus, sitting by the road, not being able to see anything, wants to know what’s going on. Gradually, once the news that amongst the crowd is Jesus, he begins to cry out over and over, calling that name and begging for mercy. This crying out does not seem to be the taste of the crowd and “many” rebuke him, “telling him to be silent.” I mean, he can’t see but he can talk, and the subject of his conversation is excessively jarring. If he had asked for advice about how to love himself more, there on his mat by the road, I imagine several people would have stopped to chat. They would have told him to put cucumbers over his eyes, and given him a recipe for facial cream. And then they would have gone on their ways because everyone, no matter the quality of the Sunday self-care, has to go back to work on Monday morning.
Bartimaeus cries out “all the more” because, well, who knows why anyone calls out so obnoxiously and helplessly for Jesus. What distresses you as you lie in your bed in the early hours of any morning, but particularly Sunday, counting up to yourself the obstacles between you and something like church, or Sunday lunch, or worse, work on Monday. Fatigue? Check. Disappointments? Double check. All the stuff you were supposed to do over the weekend because you don’t have time during the workweek—phone calls, insurances, shopping, car maintenance, cleaning out the gutters, paying bills….check check check. Whether you climb out of bed to run yourself a long luxurious bath, or join in the mob online, or drag yourself to church all of it will still be there. No matter how well you love yourself, all the trouble of life and the dissatisfactions of the soul can never be foisted off and left behind.
Jesus continues his slow walking, impeded by the mob, and Bartimaeus becomes frantic. He is crying out and crying out. What if Jesus doesn’t stop? What if he has to sit there for the rest of his life, blind, in the dark, helpless.
It has always seemed marvelous to me that so many healings, even resurrection from the dead, happens in the Old Testament. Leprosy is cured. Ax heads are recovered. Oil fills up jars. All of that sort of thing. But no one is ever given sight. It’s promised a lot—the blind will be able to see—but there is no record of a blind person being healed. In fact, many prophets point out that even the people who can see are really blind. “We hope,” they say, “for light, and behold darkness, and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We grope for the wall like the blind; we grope like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among those in full vigor we are like dead men.” We—all of us.
The crowd goes on shushing Bartimaeus to such a degree that finally Jesus stops and tells them to call this loud, difficult, unhappy man. “Call him,” he says, and so they say to Bartimaeus, “Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.” And “throwing off his cloak” because it is as heavy as a blanket and in his way, he leaps up, surprisingly spry after sitting there for so long, and comes to Jesus. And Jesus, who knows everything anyway, and who could reach into anyone’s life and remove all the trouble if he wanted to, irritatingly says to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” This might have confounded someone like Bartimaeus, who surely had so many problems it would have been hard to pick one. If Jesus asked you that, what would you say? Last week, or whenever it was, when his two disciples, Peter and John, pressed close upon him and wanted him to “do whatever they asked” Jesus was not impressed by their deep longings for self-exultation and self-care. But now he asks Bartimaeus what he most wants. And Bartimeaus, though he is blind, is far-sighted beyond that of the whole crowd, and even Jesus’ closest friends. He wants to see. “Let me recover my sight,” he says. And Jesus, desiring that none should perish, but that everyone should follow him and listen to his voice and see him with their eyes—the eyes of the heart—says, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” As in, the desperation of Bartimaeus to be healed, his loud cries for Jesus to stop, to help him, meant that he would never be cast out, he would be able to “follow him on the way.”
For, it must be that Mark includes this name—Bartimaeus—because the church that gathered to listen to this gospel knew at least of this man, if not actually meeting him over the coffee urn after the service. For though the world flows by, blindly searching after ease, and happiness, and meaning, there are some people who turn aside into the angular, difficult, bright company of the people who get out of bed, put on their shoes, comb their hair, and go to church. Though there may not be very many of them, these are the people of faith, the ones who are desperate, who know they can’t possibly love themselves enough and so need the love of Jesus. To each one of these he says, “What do you want me to do for you?” Which is not an invitation for self-exultation and glory, but rather to open up the great darkness of need and sin and let Jesus see it, and heal it. And this he will do for you sitting there in your pew, calling out in the quiet, helpless desolation of your own spirit. He will not pass you by.
Seriously, though, go to church.