I preached this story this morning at Epiphany Episcopal Church in Oak Park. Usually I weave in stories about Camp Stevens, but these readings and Maddie’s condition spun me into a world of theological doubt & questioning I haven’t experienced since Ella died. I preached from notes (not a text) so it flowed better, but this is the gist.
Tony Campolo is a well-known preacher and teacher in the evangelical church. As an evangelical teenager, I had the opportunity to hear him speak at a youth rally. Campolo is most famous for one particular sermon – one he shared with us that day – where he shares a story about visiting an all-black church known for their preaching. As he tells it, the preacher said the same line over and over again with increasing intensity and participation from the crowd for close to an hour. The line for which the black preacher and now Tony Campolo are famous for is: it’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming. It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming. Campolo was reminding his listeners that this work, this hardship, this pain, this uncertainty, this exile that we are feeling today is temporary. Friday – Good Friday – is temporary, and Easter Sunday is right around the corner.
This morning’s readings relay stories of exile – of Friday experiences. The story of the Israelites retold by Jeremiah reminds us of the hardship God’s people faced as they spent 40 years in the desert. They fought, they struggled, they hurt. Blind Bartimaeus is exiled because of lack of sight, without which he sits at the side of the road begging for money for food to eat.
We can relate, in ways, to these stories of exile. Our world is full of pain and loss. Today a hurricane is exiling thousands of people in Mexico. Refugees are flooding Europe from Syria. Individuals and communities in our own country continue to experience racism and people feel exiled, abandoned, and condoned because of the color of their skin. There is illness and loss among our own families and communities. And we exile ourselves in our self-doubt, self-criticism, and self-talk when we believe that we are not enough.
Our God, though, is a God of resurrection, renewal, and restoration. Jeremiah reminds us that the Israelites made it to the promised land! Bartemaeus regained his sight! Yay! Let’s celebrate!
Hmmmm … not so fast.
I’m left feeling remarkably unsettled by such a quick ending to these stories. I believe that Sunday’s coming, like Campolo emphatically says, but I need to know how to get through Friday and Saturday.
In the short story of blind Bartemaeus, we can learn three things about living in exile:
First, we need to show up every day. Every day Bartimaeus went to the temple gates, sat by the road, and begged. For all we know, every day he hoped he’d see Jesus. What we know for sure is that he showed up. Author Kathleen Norris writes about the importance of showing up – of habit, of seeking the holy in the every day. At the beginning of “Quotidian Mysteries,” she writes about her first liturgical church experience – a wedding – when she was so taken by noticing the priest doing the dishes after communion while the entire congregation waited. That small act demonstrated to her the profound importance of the mundane. Poet Mary Oliver writes in an essay titled “Habits, Differences, and the Light That Abides:”
In the shapeliness of a life, habit plays its sovereign role. The religious literally wear it. Most people take action by habit in small things more often than in important things, for it’s the simple matters that get done readily, while the more somber and interesting, taking more effort and being more complex, often must wait for another day. Thus, we could improve ourselves quite well by habit, by its judicious assistance, but it’s more likely that habits rule us.
The bird in the forest or the fox on the hill has no such opportunity to forgo the important for the trivial. Habit, for these, is also the garment they wear, and indeed the very structure of their body life. It’s now or never for all their vitalities – bonding, nest building, raising a family, migrating or putting on the deeper coat of winter – all is done on time and with devoted care, even if events contain also playfulness, grace, and humor, those inseparable spirits of vitality. Neither does the tree hold back its leaves but lets them flow open or glide away when the time is right. Neither does water make its own decision about freezing or not; that moment rests with the rule of temperatures.
Men and women of faith who pray – that is, who come to a certain assigned place, at definite times, and are not abashed to go down on their knees – will not tarry for the cup of coffee of the newsbreak or the end of the movie when the moment arrives. The habit, then, has become their life. … The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us. Our battles with our habits speak of dreams yet to become real. I would like to be like the fox, earnest in devotion and humor both, or the brave, compliant pond shutting its heavy door for the long winter.”
Bartimaeus shows up physically, building habits that pattern his life. But he also shows up emotionally and relationally. Bartimaeus is vulnerable with the people and with Jesus. Brenè Brown, a researcher who studies connection, vulnerability, and shame, and who has become a best-selling author of books on the same, began her national public career through a tremendously moving TED talk about vulnerability. At the end of that talk she shares three qualities people who build connection share that we all could benefit from. First, we ought to love with our whole hearts even though there’s no guarantee. Second, we should practice gratitude and joy. And third, we should believe we are enough, and we can get there by being kinder and gentler to ourselves and others.
And finally, Bartimaeus teaches us the importance of speaking up and advocating for ourselves and others. Bartimaeus, in his own way, challenges us to stop responding to “how are you?” with “I’m fine” when we’re not fine. How could our relationships and communities be different if we really knew each other, advocating for one another and ourselves? How would our relationships and communities be different if we responded to one another like Jesus, and in turn the crowd, responded to Bartimaeus? What injustice, pain, or otherwise exiled people or matters are you passionate about that you could advocate for?
Friday – Tony Campolo’s Friday – is a real thing. Yes, Sunday is coming, but in the meantime we can show up physically through habit, show up emotionally and relationaly by being vulnerable, and advocate through prayer and action for that which we need or are passionate about.
But there’s one more element of this Sunday’s readings that leaves me feeling a tremendous amount of dissonance, and that is Jesus telling Bartimaeus to get up and see, that his faith has made him well.
A week ago Thursday my friends’ 6-year-old daughter, Maddie, was taken to the hospital for a malfunctioning brain draining shunt. Over the course of the next couple days she had multiple surgeries, a seizure, and a stroke. She has been unresponsive and on a respirator since last Saturday. This idea of faith making one well, and of the simplicity of Tony Campolo’s message “it’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming” are disconcerting at best.
Let’s go back to our lessons from Bartimaeus on being in exile and take note on how we might respond on this proverbial Friday.
First, we show up. We show up with cookies and casseroles. We show up with notes on Facebook. We show up to help care for other children. And we show up, out of habit, to pray over and over and over again even when we’re having a hard time believing our prayers are making a difference.
Then, if we’re able, we show up with our whole selves even though it’s terrifying and there’s no guarantee. We bring gratitude and joy into the corners of the hospital room as much as we’re able, and we try to believe that we are enough. Most especially, we work to be kind and gentle to ourselves in our grief and exile, and to others.
Finally, while we’re in exile or Peru some time after, we advocate. We advocate with our voices, our letters, or by walking for March of Dimes. We advocate by talking about the hard stuff and supporting organizations and communities that do the same. We shout from the side of the street until Jesus – and the crowd – hears us, stops, and meets us where we are.
This wellness that Jesus is talking about isn’t going back to the way things were. Sure, the Israelites made it to the promised land, but after a hell of an ordeal. And Bartimaeus did receive his sight. But Maddie may never be the same. The wellness Jesus speaks of and provides is about WHOLEness and wholeness is different than completion or the way things were.
Wholeness is about learning to live with our whole heart. It’s living with and into the tension Mary Oliver is forever dancing around when she writes: “All my life and it has come to no more than this: beauty and terror.” We find wholeness as we lean into and learn to live with loss. We find wholeness when we show up with and for those around us. We find wholeness in habit. We find wholeness in God’s unending grace.
Some days and weeks and seasons feel more like Friday than others, and right now, and as long as we wait for Maddie to wake, is especially heavy. And sure, Sunday is coming in the grand scheme of things. But in the meantime there is grace. And it is through that grace from one another, toward ourselves, and by the grace of God, that we will learn to live in the tension of this temporal world and we will find our way out of exile. By the grace of God we will be made whole.