The Gift of Presence
For nearly two weeks, those of us in the Saint Paul Area Synod have been blessed by the presence of ou[...]
Grace and peace to you from God the Father, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
He made do with what he had. It wasn’t much. Every day the blind beggar, Bartimaeus, made his way out to a spot at the side of the pilgrim route from Jericho to Jerusalem. He spread out his cloak and cried out for those passing by to throw a few alms his way. Every day. That is how he got by.
In the eight months since moving into the office of bishop I have been discovering all the resources that we have to work with in this synod. Let me begin with the synod staff and the leaders who serve on Synod Council and as Deans. Wow! There is a lot of talent there. I never leave for event without recognizing how much I benefit from the labors of these colleagues. They are good at organizing and planning. They are attentive to congregations. They manage all kinds of budgets and expectations. And to top it off -- we have a great time together.
Back when it was much warmer in July I made a quick stop-by visit to each of the 112 congregations and mission starts in this synod. Since then I have preached or participated in worship in about 30 of our congregations. Let me tell you what I have seen.
I have seen buildings and property in good repair almost everywhere I stopped. We care about the brick and mortar mission centers entrusted to us. In the summer I saw an abundance of gardens, often with vegetables being grown for hungry neighbors, though some were flower gardens with benches and arbors – beautiful places to sit and pray on a summer day.
As staff drove me from church to church, I saw beautiful sanctuaries in a multitude of architectural styles. The artistry of earlier generations, and the commitment to beautiful space today, was in evidence stop after stop. And even though I arrived unannounced, I was greeted by welcoming staff or volunteers, who happened to be there when I arrived.
We all know that the church is so much more than a building, but our Lutheran congregations do serve as a kind of anchor in many communities and neighborhoods. Others know we are there.
Last October I was headed up to Center City for an ordination at Chisago Lakes Lutheran Church. I had been there once before, so I glanced at a map, headed north on I-35 and then east on Highway 8. You might think you can’t get lost on Highway 8 but I did. I looked to right when I should have looked to the left. Pretty soon I was in open country. It was dusk. The service was set to start soon. I stopped by a restaurant and cheese shop a few miles past my destination. “Have you heard of them?” I asked. “Can you help me find the way?” The clerk at the counter didn’t know where the church was but she called for a young man working in the kitchen. “Great church,” he said. “Here’s how you get there” and he got me turned around in the right direction.
You can try that, too. You don’t have to be lost. Just go a few blocks from your church building and ask people about “those folks” at whatever church. You may receive curious stares but I think you’ll learn what I am learning. People notice the presence of us Lutherans in their midst. They know we make good neighbors, offer a refuge to strangers, and are places where mission happens, though they may not call feeding hungry school kids or hosting a scout troop or a job club “mission”. But mission it is.
And one more thing from my travels. I have been thinking about all the good music that happens inside our congregations. What is the sum total of musical offerings across our synod? How many hours a week are invested in rehearsal time and preparation? We may differ in the musical styles we prefer, but boy do we Lutherans know how to sing and how to use music as a second form of prayer. You might say that is simply what we do every day.
Back in the Gospel text, we learn that there is much more to the story of this blind beggar. Though sightless, Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is passing by and cries out to him – “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
Do you know what it means to cry for mercy? It is something more than the cry for alms, the plea for a few coins. What Bartimaeus seeks is something more than the tokens of his everyday life.
But in a way it doesn’t matter what the beggar seeks – at least to the crowd, which is quick to tell him to be quiet. To shut up. I think sometimes we experience just that in our churches today. We read the results of polls and trend lines and all we can imagine is our faith communities drying up. Church doors closing. Buildings boarded up.
But notice what Bartimaeus does when the world around him tells him to give up. Right then, he calls out all the more loudly.Son of David, have mercy on me. Jesus, Savior, be the God I seek. Never mind that the street is noisy and crowded. Never mind that it is seemingly impossible to trust that such a plea can be heard.
Mark chapter 10, verse 49 is about my most favorite verse in the whole New Testament. It is a verse I return to over and over again amid the responsibilities that have been placed on my shoulders. Jesus stood still and said, ‘call him here’. And they called the blind man, saying to him – ‘Take heart; get up; Jesus is calling you.”
Take heart. Get up. Jesus is calling you. If there is a particular word God has for the church today – a word for us in this Saint Paul Area Synod – I believe this is that word. Have courage! Be raised up in all the power of Christ’s life-giving, surprising resurrection. Jesus is calling.
And remember what happens next. Bartimaeus is led to Jesus. When asked what he wants Jesus to do for him the beggar speaks from the very deepest place in his life, saying, “Let me see again.” And that is just what Jesus offers. Sight restored. A broken life made whole. A great healing story.
Except -- there is one detail I passed over. When he rose from his place at the side of the road, we are told that Bartimaeusthrew off his cloak. The one tool he had – the cloak of a blind beggar to lay out on the ground to collect the alms of pilgrims on the road – the thing that framed his daily life – he left behind.
Across this synod, in and out of the 112 congregations and mission sites and Lutheran institutions that define our life together, we hold pretty tightly to what we have, to what we already know about being church. If we are honest, there is peeling paint in many places. Worship attendance numbers are not what they were a decade ago. Many of our budgets are stretched thin. I am not a bishop with a quick-fix scheme or a plan to restore us to our best memory of being the church in the past.
I am a bishop who wants us to be honest about the challenges we face. I marvel at the candor of some of you as leaders and how clearly you describe to me what it is like in your context week by week. I do want us to be realists.
I don’t know exactly how we might best gather the stories of our real challenges, our weariness – where we are weary – and our high hopes and vision for what God will yet make of us, but I am asking the Synod Council and the Deans to help me think about a process that would allow us to be intentional in our renewal and communal in our planning for the future of this synod.
And as we do that later this year, I know whatever process we outline, it will begin with attention to our own life in Christ. For that is the true heart for our churches and for our synod. That is where life begins for all of us. All of us have a need for God’s mercy and help. All of us. Including me.
But I also want every one of us here to be like Bartimaeus. Undeterred. Full of hope. Willing to follow wherever Jesus leads. Even if that means leaving our old, familiar cloaks behind.
People of God -- ‘Take heart; get up; Jesus is calling you.' May that always be at the center of how we define our life together. Thanks be to God. AMEN.