Migrants sleep on the pews at San Francisco Church in Huixtla, Chiapas; Photo by Sean T.Hawkey
November 18, 2018
Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley
We’re going over the river and through the woods next week. It’s an 800-mile road trip to the grandparent’s house in Kentucky, so it will involve several rivers and some woods and interstate highways. I’ve been thinking about packing and travelling, about what is important to take and what might be nice to have along and what is entirely unnecessary.
And I’m aware, again, that so many details are missing from Bibles stories. If we wrote a story about travel today, say a story about flying somewhere, we would probably not mention the security lines at the airports and having to take off your shoes and belt and go through an scanner and not to have any liquids in your carry-on bag. We wouldn’t mention those things because they are just assumed parts of every airplane journey. In Jesus’ day, there were similar assumptions about what a regular journey was like and so, the gospel writers did not bother supplying many details.
I wish they had. Jesus travelled a lot. From his childhood home in Nazareth, he went to the River Jordan as a young adult to be baptized by John. Then he established a base in Capernaum and wandered around and across the Sea of Galilee for a few years. When he set his face to go to Jerusalem, he travelled through Judea to Jericho and Bethany before arriving in the capital city. There are 85 miles between Capernaum and Jerusalem, although it is not at all clear that Jesus took the shortest route.
Keep in mind that a person might walk 3-4 miles per hour, so a journey of 24-32 miles could occupy a very full day of walking, if they didn’t stop very often. A healthy adult might keep up that pace, but does that describe the folks travelling with Jesus? I wonder.
I’m thinking about the details. Some of the disciples have been walking with him for years. They probably know the routine -- what time he’s likely to call a lunch break, how much they will walk in the early morning or late at night to stay out of the heat of the sun. But others have been joining them on the road and the band is getting larger. Surely it is hard to keep up the pace when so many are travelling together.
By the time they leave Jericho, Mark says that there is a large crowd travelling together. It’s only 15 miles from Jericho to Jerusalem and lots of people are probably headed to Jerusalem for Passover. We know from Luke’s gospel that families travelled together for Passover, so I’m going to guess that there are children in this group. Possibly there have been children in the crowds following Jesus from the beginning, either walking themselves or the very youngest ones being carried. I suspect that means that this group has never moved particularly quickly.
And I wonder about other details. Where do they sleep at night? Do they carry bedrolls and toothbrushes? Where do they get water for drinking, or for bathing? Do the villages and towns welcome them and offer hospitality? Or do they lock their doors and the city gates and tell them to keep moving?
I’m thinking about all these things because I’ve been watching the migrants moving up through Mexico. I’ve seen spouses sleeping in the depressions formed on the side of the road and groups of men on wooden pallets and families filling the pews and open spaces in a church sanctuary opened to them for that purposes. One 62-year-old woman was travelling alone. She was being extorted by someone in Honduras who threatened to kill her, so she left home because she said that she is a good, honest person who doesn’t want to die yet. I have seen five-year-olds trudging steadily along beside their parents and babies being pushed in strollers and one little girl melting down into tears because, after walking hundreds of miles for weeks, she just could not do it anymore.
The size of the group with Jesus is small compared with the size of the migrant exodus, but both represent crowds containing a host of individual needs and the unpredictability of strangers brought together in a group. And so, if we look at this story of Bartimaeus through the lens of the migrant caravan, what might we learn?
As this large crowd with Jesus leaves Jericho, a blind beggar calls out from the side of the road. He is just one person and they are many, so he yells repeatedly to get their attention. At first the crowd tells him to be quiet, but then Jesus hears him and says “Tell him to come here.” So the crowd changes their tune and says, “Jesus is calling you. Go for it.”
Life has not been kind to Bartimaeus. His days consist of moving from his home to his begging spot and back again. On good days, he gets enough money to eat. On others, he goes hungry. The prevailing wisdom is that he deserves his disability, that he is a bad person being punished by God. It is not likely that people treat him well. It would have made more sense if he had been crusty and cynical, but something inside of him is still able to trust goodness and to ask for goodness from God, despite the difficulty of his life.
I’ve watched people in the caravan being interviewed. They smile and are friendly to the strangers asking questions. They speak of nights when it was hard to sleep even though they were exhausted. They say they don’t want to tell family members back home how very hard the trip has been. One woman travelling with four children said that they had been treated well everywhere in Mexico, but when they arrived in Tijuana, people threw rocks at them. They tell their stories honestly, but mostly without bitterness. And many of them speak of God, of their faith in the goodness of God, in the goodness of God’s people.
When Jesus calls to him, Bartimaeus jumps up. He only owned one cloak. At night, it was his blanket; he wrapped it around himself to keep warm. By day, it served to catch the coins people tossed to him. To get to Jesus, he throws his cloak aside. Any money he received that day scatters in the dust. He abandons his cloak, his most treasured possession, his livelihood, before Jesus has done anything for him.
Similarly, the migrants have abandoned their homes. They have left behind any treasured possessions, their friends, everything familiar in their lives, all without any guarantees that they are making a good trade. They do not focus on what they left behind, but on the possibility of a new home and a different future.
When Bartimaeus gets to Jesus, Jesus asks “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus grants him the dignity of speaking for himself. He doesn’t presume that he knows what is best for him.
Just before they came to Jericho, James and John had made a request of Jesus. Jesus had asked them the same question he asked Bartimaeus – “What do you want me to do for you?” James and John had said they wanted to sit in the seats of honor, at Jesus’ right and left, when he came into his glory, while the other disciples conversed about who would be the greatest among them. This story about Bartimaeus comes at the end of a long section which shows that “Jesus’ closest followers have failed to fully grasp the upside-down kingdom that Christ has brought near to the world.”
What do you want me to do for you? James and John said “give us the high status positions.” Bartimaeus’s was direct and simple “Teacher, my sight.”
For Bartimaeus, faith is a matter of life and death, not a path to religious rewards. He is an outsider who gets it, while the insiders still don’t understand.
When the migrants are asked what they want, they say “I want asylum, safety, a home. I’m honest. I want to work hard and make a better future.” They are courageously and desperately fleeing the self-perpetuating cycles of violence and corruption and poverty. It is quite literally a matter of life and death.
The Rev. Dr. Susan Andrews, a Presbyterian minister from Hudson, New York says, “Faith is needy. Faith is eager. Faith is assertive. Faith is hopeful. Faith is impetuous and persistent and risky and raw. Faith is personal and relational. Faith ends something and faith begins something. Faith is about God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves, and faith is about us, out of dumbstruck gratitude doing for God what only we can do. Most of all, faith often leads us to places we would just as soon not go.”
When I think about this story of Bartimaeus, I usually consider how much I am or am not like Bartimaeus. What do I really want from Jesus? Do I have enough faith to throw away my cloak? What are my life and death issues? I usually compare myself to Bartimaeus and I don’t look good in the comparison.
But reading it this time, I see that I could locate myself in another place in this story. It’s possible that I’m in the crowd somewhere.
There’s the crowd at the beginning, the crowd that wants to keep him quiet. Maybe that crowd thought that Bartimaeus should just accept his lot in life and not be so obnoxious, so demanding, so eager to get Jesus’ attention.
And then there’s the crowd that encourages Bartimaeus. After Jesus stops and tells them to call him over, then they switch gears and maybe pretend they had never tried to shush him in the first place.
What if I am in one of those crowds? I notice that not one of Jesus’ disciples speaks up for Bartimaeus when the crowd hushes him. They know Jesus. They know that he responds to people in need. Surely, by now they might expect that he would want them to help those folks get to him. But they just go along with everyone else, not wanting the distractions of poverty and disability and human need to interrupt their business. They are on the road to Jerusalem and some of them are afraid of what will happen there. They are on their way to celebrate Passover and maybe some just want to get on with the holiday preparations.
Maybe I am just going along with the crowd around Jesus, taking my cues from those close to me, instead of what I know about Jesus. Maybe I am watching the migrant exodus from afar, not too engaged, thinking more about my Thanksgiving celebration. Maybe I am overwhelmed with the intensity of individual needs, seeing only the limitations and not the possibilities.
And so I look one last time at this story through the lens of the migrant exodus. I wonder -- why did people travel with Jesus then and why does the migrant caravan move now? My answer to both questions is hope. The most hopeful character is Bartimaeus. But sadly, I think I am not that hopeful, not that faithful. The next most hopeful character is the second crowd, that one that encourages Bartimaeus to take heart. Maybe I can locate myself there. Maybe I can, in some small way, encourage the migrants, even as their faith encourages me.
I wonder where you find yourself. I wonder if together, we might call our community to attend to the cries for mercy that others would silence or ignore. I wonder if we might stop and attend to the Spirit of God, gathering a crowd to bear witness, to see what God is doing in the lives of faithful, eager people.
The Rev. Howard Thurman, African-American preacher and teacher of the last generation said this, “The movement of the Spirit of God in the hearts of men and women often calls them to act against the spirit of their times or causes them to anticipate a spirit which is yet in the making. In a moment of dedication they are given wisdom and courage to dare a deed that challenges and to kindle a hope that inspires.”
Sisters and brothers, may we be found in that movement, challenging wisely and kindling hope. Thanks be to God.
 Victor McCracken in Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 4, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, general editors, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009), p. 216.
 Howard Thurman, Footprints of a Dream: The Story of the Church for the Fellowship of all Peoples, (1959), p. 7