So let me finish the story about this Easter; there was more than NeNe and her little pink purse. When you bring your entire church downtown to feed 800 homeless people including a band, worship, a message, communion, and resource stations, it gets…messy. The sanitized version of church goes out the window. The rules to maintain an organized service simply don’t apply to an outdoor service dominated by the homeless.
So during Brandon’s brief message, one very sad, very lost woman screamed, “Where were all of you when these men were violating me?! Where were you??” There was more, none printable. It was raw and desperate, littered with expletives and sorrow. If we came to proclaim freedom for the oppressed like Jesus said, then we needn’t look further than this broken woman.
My church family, however, responded with grace befitting the Bride. Brandon spoke gently to her, Christi tried to embrace her, Ryan held out his hand, others interceded for this prodigal daughter. If Jesus really meant the church was a hospital for the sick, not a showcase of the healthy, then we were seriously having church.
Cut to the next day.
I was preparing to be the keynote speaker at an event two weeks away, the Ladies’ Retreat for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, around 3000 women. I was locked into Mark 10, where Jesus engaged blind Bartimaeus a week before he went to the cross. I got down to business studying.
I had so much to teach. Other people.
Bartimaeus: poor, blind, beggar. Probably looked like every homeless person I know. Outcast, shunned from the temple, unclean, discarded in every way – a true societal reject. And here comes Jesus with his entourage, headed to Jerusalem to be “king” (oops, they had a little misunderstanding about what that meant – their bad). Everyone is excited, everyone is cheering. Yay, Jesus! We’re getting our king and we’ll be free!
“As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (that is, the Son of Timaeus), was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’” (vs. 46-47)
Whoa up. Yikes. This is awkward. This is embarrassing actually. There is nothing dignified here. This reeks of desperation. I mean, Bartimaeus? Poor, blind Bartimaeus screaming at Jesus? Sheesh. What a mess, Jesus surrounded by normal, decent followers, forced to deal with this sad, sorry homeless guy screaming bloody murder.
“Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him.’ So they called to the blind man, ‘Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.’ Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.
‘What do you want me to do for you? Jesus asked him. The blind man said, ‘Rabbi, I want to see.’ ‘Go,’ said Jesus, ‘your faith has healed you.’ Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.” (vs. 48-52)
And bam, right in the middle of my important studying to teach others how to follow Jesus, the Holy Spirit leveled me. Who was I in this scenario? Not Jesus, mercifully pausing for a blind beggar on his way to the cross, but the embarrassed “Christ followers” who scorned this humiliating interruption during their Christ-following and sanitized this awkward confrontation to get on with their holiness.
I cried for an hour.
I have so far to go.
“Rabbi, I want to see.” Bartimaeus asked for the most basic human need. In biblical times, blindness meant he was considered cursed by God, which made him unclean, which made him an outcast, which made him a beggar. Unlike James and John who nine verses earlier asked to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in glory (predicated by the awesome demand, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask”), Bartimaeus only asked for mercy.
This is like the starving asking for food, the orphan asking for parents, the homeless asking for shelter, the sick asking for medicine; basic human needs – food, shelter, care, love. These aren’t tangled up in power or position, they aren’t born out of entitlement or greed. They are a plea for mercy, the cry of every human heart.
Decorum has no relevance for the mother who prostitutes to feed her children or the nine-year-old who eats trash to survive the streets. The “rules on how to behave” are meaningless for the 66 children infected with HIV in the last hour or the 25,000 people who died today from starvation.
The poor world is begging for mercy like Bartimaus, while the rich world is asking for more favor like James and John.
I taught this mess at the BGCO Ladies’ Retreat, including my dismal failure on Easter. I wondered if the American church was like well-mannered nice-talkers, sitting in a living room sipping coffee, talking about choir practice, while the world burns down outside our windows. While the richest people on earth pray to get richer, the rest of the world begs for intervention with their faces pressed to the window, watching us drink our coffee, unruffled by their suffering.
It’s just not right.
So I blubbered in front of 3000 women, bawling for the anguish of others and my own heinous disinterest, worried we were missing the point. I told the story about giving away my boots and asked if a similar moment wasn’t in order – not that shoes will change anyone’s life, but there is something spiritual and submissive about offering the shoes on your feet, the sweater off your back. It tells Jesus: I’m in.
It’s the engine behind this month of Seven: giving away is somehow sacred, connecting to the sacrificial heartbeat of Jesus. It’s as transformative for the giver as a blessing to the receiver. When God told us to give, I suspect he had spiritual formation in mind as much as meeting needs.
You might want to sit down.
Before I formalized this or offered any structure, women started pouring down the aisles, pulling their shoes off. They left jackets, Bibles, purses, diamond necklaces, wedding rings, cameras, iPhones, bags – I have never seen anything like it. Eventually, I just turned off my microphone as hundreds of women laid face down, sobbing, barefoot. The stage was covered in their offerings, falling onto the ground and taking over the room.
It filled 70 large moving boxes.
It was the greatest possible giveaway of Month Three.
I’ll repeat: 70 moving boxes full of offerings; thousands of women going home in the pouring rain, barefooted. The church is not beyond the movement of Jesus. A stirring is happening within the Bride. God is awakening the church from her slumber, initiating a profound advancement of the kingdom.
Please, don’t miss it because the American Dream seems a reasonable substitute, countering the apparent downside to living simply so others can live at all. Do not be fooled by the luxuries of this world; they cripple our faith. Like Jesus explained, the right things have to die so the right things can live – we die to selfishness, greed, power, accumulation, prestige, and self-preservation, giving life to community, generosity, compassion, mercy, brotherhood, kindness, and love.
The gospel will die in the toxic soil of self. Paul wrote, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.” We want the life part without being united with Jesus in the death part, but that version of Christianity doesn’t exist – that is a false gospel, void of sacrifice.
The fertile soil of death is where the gospel forms roots and actually bears fruit. We have to die to live; we have to die so others can live. It almost sounds like Jesus’ mission. This is the church he was willing to die for, a Bride that inspires and changes the world. This vision is worthy of radical obedience. Don’t give up on the church.
There is hope for her yet.
This is the week Jesus made all things new and rescued us from ourselves. May worship and obedience and mercy and love reign in our hearts. Struggling with the church and all its mess? You are welcome here and I am glad to walk beside you.