The story of the blind beggar, that we have before us today, begins in darkness. It begins in emptiness. It begins with raw need.
The text tells us that Jesus and his followers had been on the move and as they entered the city of Jericho, they encountered a blind beggar named Bartimaeus. Now, this “son of honor,” which is what the name Bartimaeus literally means, is a metaphor for the suffering of humanity. Bartimaeus is the poster child for those who have been excluded from society; chased out of the synagogue in Jesus’ day or the Church in ours; Bartimaeus represents those who are on the outside-looking-in.
So, bearing this in mind, the first thing we need to consider as we begin to imagine what the emerging church of the next 500 years might look like is this: How might we interact with those who are outside our walls, looking in? Or, to put it another way: How can we offer an “extravagant welcome” to all people.
You know, for some time now, all across the United Church of Christ, we’ve been hanging banners that read, “no matter who, no matter what, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.” It’s a message of extravagant welcome. But why do we do this? Why is “welcome” important? Well, it’s important because in the past those in society who found themselves on the outside-looking-in, like blind Bartimaeus, have felt extravagantly UN-welcome in the church, empty, left out in the darkness.
Sally was one such person. You see, Sally was a miserable human being. She had run away from home at the age of fifteen, went through a series of bad relationships, the last one ending with a hospital stay and a restraining order. Sally gave birth to four children by four different fathers and for years they were in and out of foster care. Sally had trouble caring for her children because she would often dull the pain of her life with drugs and alcohol. And this downward spiral hit rock bottom one day when her 2-year-old child drown in a backyard swimming pool while Sally slept off her latest bender.
But it was then that something amazing happened. Sally found herself in the basement of the local UCC church every week for an AA meeting. AA gave her the space and the freedom, for the first time in her life, to open up about the abuse she had underwent as a child. It was an opportunity to acknowledge and take responsibility for the bad choices she had made and to attempt to come to terms with the loss of her child. And for the first time in her life Sally began to think about things like faith and God; she even thought about going to church.
Let’s pause here for a moment and think once again about extravagant welcome. AA is a part of that welcome. It provides a confidential and sacred space for people who have common struggles. Other examples of this kind of welcome might include working at the food pantry, opening up our buildings for community events and groups, funerals and weddings and such. In Cable we have the Farmer’s Market and the Second Chance garage sale, and in Delta we have a number of special services and community dinners. All of these things are a part of our out-reach into the community. Perhaps we sometimes forget how something as simple as allowing a group to meet here can build goodwill with our neighbors.
But the story can’t end there. The challenge of providing an extravagant welcome must find a way to bridge the gap between people being welcomed into the buildings and inviting them to become involved in our faith communities. Now, I’m not trying to be overly Pollyannic here. I’m a realist. I know that not all the people who use our buildings or attend our events will join our churches. But that doesn’t mean we can’t extend the invitation.
Sally was leaving AA one afternoon when she happened upon someone in the parking lot that she vaguely recognized. It was Fran. Let me tell you about Fran. Fran was a member of that UCC congregation, she taught Sunday school and was on the church board; Fran was also the investigating officer when Sally’s child had drowned several years before.
Sally suddenly made the connection and quickly turned to avoid Fran. But Fran stepped into her path and after an intense twenty-minute conversation, a few tears, and some uncomfortable laughter on the part of Sally, she agreed to come to church the next Sunday.
Now, if you think the story ends there, think again. This story took place in a small town and everyone knew Sally and her story. But for most of the people there, including Fran, the past didn’t matter. Yes, there were a few sideways-glances, and one overt attempt to shame Sally which Fran immediately squashed. But for the most part Sally was accepted, her past and all, her mistakes and all, and she became a member of that congregation.
No matter who, no matter what, you’re welcome here.
Now, Sally’s story began in darkness. It began in emptiness. It began with raw need. Like Bartimaeus, she was on the outside-looking-in, the circumstances of her life and the poor choices that she made had separated her from God. But also, like the blind beggar, by making the decision to attend AA and taking a risk by walking into that church one Sunday morning, Sally threw off the cloak of her despair and shouted for Jesus to heal her. And when she encountered resistance, with the help of Fran, she shouted even louder.
And that’s the crux of the Bartimaeus story. Faith! Faith in its infancy might be needy, it might feel empty at times; it might even begin in darkness. But it doesn’t stay there. Because faith is also eager. It’s assertive and hopeful. Faith is impetuous and persistent and risky. It’s both personal and relational; it’s individual and communal. And finally, faith isn’t stagnate; it’s always progressing; always in the process of moving us toward the light; the Light that is Jesus Christ.
And that’s where I gonna leave you today. The extravagant welcome of the emerging church, of our church, must be grounded in faith. One of the most power voices in the emerging church movement, Brian McLaren, affirms this when he says that, “Jesus was short on sermons, but long on conversations; short on answers, but long on questions; short on abstraction and propositions, but long on stories and parables; short on telling you what to think, but long on challenging you to think for yourself.”
My friends, as the journey continues, my prayer for our church is that we will be grounded in faith, open to the movement of the Spirit; that we will be extravagant in our welcome to all and steadfast in our service to others. And that as we begin the next 500 years of our shared ministry, that we too will be long on conversation and intent in our listening; that we will ask more questions realizing that we don’t have all the answers; that we will be long on stories and share the parables of our collective journey; and finally, that will accept the challenge, Christ’s challenge, to think of new and innovative ways to engage the future.
My friends, take heart.
We can do this.