When I hear a story about a man crying by the side of the road, I remember a morning when I was twenty years old. It’s a time of my life I have spoken of here before, when I was at something of a loss as to my direction, the way twenty-year-olds often are. I was living up in Seattle, and I’d moved out of a house I shared with my brother and his friends, because I’d tired of the party atmosphere. But they were the only friends I had in that city, where I’d lived for less than a year. I’d found a room to rent in a house full of strangers who were nice enough, but who kept to themselves. I’d had a love affair with a pretty redhead I’d met during evening rush hour at a bus stop downtown, but now that was over. And the particular morning I’m thinking of was a Saturday, and I had the day free and no one to spend it with.
I took the bus downtown and had breakfast at the public market, looking out over Elliott Bay and feeling lonely, and as I headed home the feeling of loneliness grew and grew. Then the bus I was riding on broke down in an industrial area just north of downtown. The driver said that the next one should be along in forty-five minutes, and handed us new transfers as we climbed down onto the sidewalk. A few of the passengers elected to wait, but the rest of us went off in our different directions. I walked a block or two along the deserted street in the noonday glare, past the warehouses and auto shops closed for the weekend, with a feeling of frustration and friendlessness and emptiness welling up in my heart until I couldn’t contain it anymore and I just sat down on the curb and started to cry.
That was a low point in my life, but like some of my other low points it was also a turning point. It was a point I had to get to, because there was something I needed to see. What came to me as I sat there, with my heart breaking, by the side of the road, not caring if anyone came by or what they might think of me, was that the life I was leading meant nothing to me. It wasn’t so much that I was doing anything wrong, but that there was another life I was supposed to be living. There was a dream I was supposed to be following, and this painful emptiness I was feeling was a sign that I was out of excuses. I’d run out of attachments, and illusions, and false hopes, and all I had left was my real life.
I didn’t know or couldn’t admit at the time that what I was really embarking on was a search for God. But that night I went to see the man who taught the massage-therapy course I was taking. I told him that I wanted to try living in an intentional community. It was something I’d been thinking about this secretly for years, but this was the first time I’d ever mentioned it to anyone. I was afraid he’d think I was ridiculous, but he said, “Oh, there are still a lot of those around,” as if it was the most natural thing in the world. He suggested I start visiting some to see what I thought, and he gave me the name of a place he knew about at a hot springs down in Oregon. And so that’s where I started. I didn’t stay, but on a bulletin board at Breitenbush Hot Springs I saw a flyer about an intentional spiritual community in Massachusetts that was offering free room and board to carpenter’s apprentices to help construct a new building. I wrote to the name and address on the flyer and that’s where the life I was supposed to be living, the life I’ve been living now for twenty-seven years, my life in intentional spiritual community, began.
Two weeks ago Sunday we heard a story about another man crying on the road, a man who came to Jesus to ask him what he should do to inherit eternal life. And Jesus told him that he only lacked one thing—to sell what he owned and give the money to the poor, and to follow him. That man went away grieving, because he had many possessions. He cherished his riches, and for all his strenuous efforts to be a good person, they meant more to him than the summons to follow his own real life.
But today we meet a blind beggar, a man who sits by side of the road, crying for help. He has a dream in his heart and the dream has a name—the name of Jesus of Nazareth. When he hears that name spoken by the crowd of pilgrims going by on their way to Jerusalem, he recognizes that at last the turning point of his life has come, and he cries out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” He doesn’t care what other people think, and though they try to shut him up, he will not stop shouting. And when Jesus hears his insistent cries for help, he stops walking. He tells his disciples to send the man over, and the blind beggar Bartimaeus leaps to his feet with joy. He throws off his cloak and leaves it behind, and when he has asked for and received his sight, he does what the rich man could not do. He follows Jesus on the road to Jerusalem.
The contrast between these two characters is not so much about the wealth of one and the poverty of the other. It is about the refusal of the one, and the readiness of the other to answer the call of their real life. And this is something to think about as we approach the end of our stewardship season at St. John’s. Oftentimes the church’s teaching about stewardship focuses on the things of our lives. Even the word “stewardship” implies that God has entrusted certain things to us and that we ought to be grateful for those things and use them in a way that God would like.
So stewardship can become a numbers game, where we try to figure out what percentage of our money, and how many hours of our time, and what share of our interest and energy God is entitled to. But the story of Bartimaeus, reminds us that God has given us a gift that can’t be appraised for its value. It cannot be divided into portions. It is not a thing in our lives, but what we have left when everything else is reduced to zero. It is our very lives themselves, our real lives, in which we live for God, and with God, and in God.
My own path of discipleship no longer looks like heading off with my backpack to live in a commune, but it’s still the same path. Now it has to do with being a husband and a father, and while it’s still about spiritual community, in recent years it has been more and more defined by the institutions and traditions of the church, and my role as a parish priest. I have taken on the privileges and responsibilities of that role, which gives a particular form to my religious practice, just as the roles of lay ministers in the church do for you.
But even as we re-commit to our ministries for the coming year, we need to remember our most important commitment. The traditions and institutions, the roles and responsibilities, mean nothing if there is not at the heart of it all the willingness to leave it behind and follow Jesus Christ down the road. God didn’t give us a percentage of our lives, just as Jesus Christ didn’t give a percentage of his. He gave his whole life, body and soul, to the God who had given him everything. And he did it for our sake. Not to spare us the trouble, but to help us, now and forever, to do the same.