“What do you want?” Oct 28, 2018
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks the blind beggar Bartimaeus. And with his response: “My teacher, let me see again,” Jesus commands him to “go; your faith has made you well.”
It was sometime back in the spring when the penny dropped for me. It happened as I was headed home, frustrated and sad, after a visit with a parishioner. A question bubbled up in me… what DO you want? What matters to you about the community and ministry at St. Andrew’s?!? I wished I had asked during the visit. I wished I had been able to turn the conversation away from what wasn’t of interest, what ministry we should end, or be contracted out. It was a day and a visit that seemed to epitomize a season of “no”… a season of low energy when all I seemed to hear was what people didn’t want or didn’t care about. That day, the penny dropped, and I began to wonder, with much greater purpose and intent, about the heart of this community. What do you want? For this parish? For the world? For your personal walk of faith?
That was also the day I remembered about the Calgary Alliance for the Common Good and the little I knew about the practices of community organizing. I knew that the basic question on which community organizing is grounded is: “what matters to you the most?” There are a whole constellation of related questions… when do you feel most alive? What is your deep desire? “What do you want?” These are the most open and broad questions, but we could also ask more focused questions… what matters to you the most about St. Andrew’s? What issues are most pressing in your life? What issues do you see as most pressing around you, in our parish or in our broader community of Calgary, Canada, the world? The process of community organizing starts with listening for the answers to questions such as these, from as many different people as possible… whoever will participate. The gift and power of the process is that it is relational. As its best, it builds relationships amongst individuals who would not normally know each other, or know each other well, let alone come together in common cause. This listening is, however, only the beginning. It is the first step in a process that then proceeds through decision-making, research, taking action and evaluation. But it starts with listening.
We have good precedent for taking such an approach. Today we hear Jesus ask blind Bartimaeus: “What do you want me to do for you?” The answer might seem obvious and yet Jesus still takes the time to ask. Bartimaeus is a local blind beggar, sitting by the roadside, who causes a ruckus as Jesus and his disciples are headed out of town. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” He cries out as they are passing by. As one commentator notices, “The rich young man wanted eternal life, James and John wanted glory, but this guy, blind and parked on the roadside, wants only mercy.” (WP) Bartimaeus cries out, causing a ruckus, and the crowd are kinda jerks about it. They tell him to be quiet and yet still he calls out. Even through the din of the crowd, Jesus hears and he enlists the jerks to help. When the crowd tells him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you,” Bartimaeus wastes no time. He’s blind not lame. He springs up, throwing caution to the wind, and responds to Jesus’ call. Instead of acting immediately, though, instead of healing immediately, Jesus takes the time to ask: “What do you want me to do for you?”
It is so easy, even satisfying, to skip this step. It takes humility to work through relationship, to acknowledge another’s agency and to ask a question instead of assuming need and its solution. Or worse, to impose a need on another, because it fits with our already predetermined solution. We in the Western world have a long history of imposing our help, in the way we think is best, on needy people around the world, and right here in our own community. We see needs for homes and food and a whole range of other things, and try to go about fixing the problems without ever pausing to listen to those whom we wish to fix. Whether it’s individual family members or whole villages, we rush to fill needs with the best of intentions. In the process, unfortunately, we may also unintentionally create codependence, so we can continue to feel powerful and in control, while we are helping.
One international development organization among many that takes a different approach is CAUSE Canada. 10 years ago I had the privilege of visiting some of their women’s empowerment projects in rural Sierra Leone. The Women’s Empowerment Project had community women map their village and together discuss and determine their most pressing need. It then funded a project to fill that need. What some groups wanted most in their own community sometimes surprised the development workers. We were there, for instance, for the opening of a primary school in one little village. Despite multiple needs, some of which might be prioritized higher by outsiders, what the women wanted most was for the youngest children to go to school in their community. As it was, they needed to walk several kilometers down the road for school and a young child had died from a snake bite during one such long walk. And so though it stretched the budget, a small school was built. I don’t know if or what other needs the women of that community were empowered to take on next.
I also wonder what needs, issues or opportunities this community of St. Andrew’s wants to take on next. In the past few years, we have discussed and decided about our communal stance towards same-sex relationships; we have improved access to our building from the parking lot; and, we have celebrated our 60 years together as a parish. Much of my work has been about managing necessary transitions in several ministry and organizational roles, including administration, music, hospitality, altar guild and other Sunday morning ministries, and children’s ministry. This last one, children’s ministry, has taken the approach of working to integrate the needs of our youngest members with our worship as a whole and as such, it has the potential to lead us into the future. But is that what you want? What do you want me to do for you? Jesus asks. What healing do you desire? What new life do you seek?
I said earlier that the approach of community organizing starts with questions such as these, but that’s not totally true. The step before even a process of intentional listening is that of developing a core team of community leaders to lead that process. That is the step we are working on now. If your answer to Jesus’ question “what do you want me to do for you?” has anything to do with developing this community of St. Andrew’s, then I hope you will have the courage and clarity of Bartimaeus to respond. There is an opportunity next weekend for more in-depth learning about community organizing and Dick Ridley and I would welcome you to join us at that training. If you can’t attend but want to be involved, please let one of us know. Over the next few months we will also be looking for people to join parish leadership in the roles of both wardens and parish council. It has yet to be determined if or how those governance roles may include or integrate with a core team focus on community development.
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks the blind beggar Bartimaeus. And with his response: “My teacher, let me see again,” Jesus commands him to “go; your faith has made you well.” “Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” At every turn, this story has such potential to go in different directions. The avenues of imaginative exploration are almost endless. What if Bartimaeus had just sat there by the side of the road, not having heard about Jesus or thinking Jesus didn’t care or didn’t have the power to heal? What if he had shied away or flat out refused when Jesus called him into his presence? What if Bartimaeus had backed away from Jesus’ question and instead of honestly stating his desire, had said something like… “oh, you know, whatever you think is best…” Would his faith had made him well then?
The good news of our story today is that Jesus does care and does have the power to heal. The good news is that we can trust in God’s love and mercy when Jesus calls us into God’s presence. The good news today is that in the very act of expressing our desire, our God in Christ recognizes that a miracle of healing has already occurred. For our faith is found in such courage and clarity as this.