Where two or three are gathered

audio for “Where two or three are gathered” by Martin Malina
Where we gather to worship & serve, photo by Martin Malina

When sitting in a living room with family, playing a game or in a sports team or when joining a club online or in person, we instinctively want everyone to participate. The church is no different. We want everyone to participate!

But participation is not domination. This is one of the main rules for healthy group dynamics: ‘Participation is not domination’. 

When I work with small group leaders, I usually start with this theme, because while we want everyone to feel free to participate, any one person cannot dominate the conversation. Domination will undermine the group process by only one individual’s opinion, concern, worldview and blow-by-blow telling of the book they read over the weekend, or the menu planned for Thanksgiving.

There is an exception to this rule. When someone who participates regularly in the group suffers a person crisis, a crisis that in some form is common to all of us. Then everyone, almost by intuition, wants to give that person the floor for as much time and as many words as they need to tell their story. Telling your story is integral to the healing process.

Bartimaeus has been suffering a personal crisis most of his life, it seems. He is visually impaired. He has carried and lived through the challenges facing a person who cannot see. How does he process his suffering?

What strikes me in this reading is that he does not hide. He does not squirrel away his pain by staying on the outskirts of Jericho in the desert under a proverbial rock. The Gospel text opens by locating him “on the roadside.”[1] Because “large crowds” travelled along this road from Jericho, we can say this was the main road from Jericho leading up to Jerusalem.

In other words, Bartimaeus shows us how to lament. In times of suffering that may feel like a lifetime, a suffering that doesn’t end – we all know this feeling when it comes to the pandemic – he does not take his spirituality and hide it under a rock. His faith journey, his relationship with God, is not privately dealt. He takes it out into the open— into the public— and sits himself by the main road where large crowds will pass him by.

Psalm 126 is entitled “A Harvest of Joy” and is a song of ascent – one of those Psalms sung by the ancient Israelites to lift their sights upward. 

Blind Bartimaeus, when Jesus heals him, is on the road up to Jerusalem. There is quite an elevation gain, topographically, between Jericho and Jerusalem. Like the ancient Israelites returning from exile, Bartimaeus, now freed from his suffering was heading in an upward direction, literally. Like the ancient Israelites, freed from exile, Bartimaeus was one of “those who go out [leaving Jericho] weeping” and “will come again [into Jerusalem] with joy.”[2]

But in a Psalm that is supposed to lift our spirits and be about restoration, there’s enough weeping and tears here to make me want to skip over those words. We need, though, to come to terms with the parts that do not feel like they belong — the weeping and tears part.

When circumstances bring cause for weeping – all the disruption, isolation, social restrictions, mental anguish and loss of jobs, health and stability—what do we do? How do we live into the post-pandemic reality? Do we ignore the difficult realities, the realities that instinctively make us want to turn away? The Gospel suggests we embrace both states of our heart. Both are important:

Both weeping and lamenting, dreaming and rejoicing. We tend to want to go either/or, don’t we? Either we are sad, or we are happy. Problem is, doing only one or the other all the time leads to despair on the one hand, delusion and denial on the other.

We may be tempted to think we need to be either/or in the church. COVID times have tempted us to entrench in this dualistic thinking, either/or: Either we sing or we don’t sing; either we meet in person or watch on YouTube; either it’s ‘perfect’ the way it used to be, or it’s not worth going to at all.

It’s an extraordinary challenge in life to balance all these tensions:

Because at one moment we are like those who dream, our mouths full of laughter and tongues with shouts of joy when things go well; and then, we are also those who sow in tears, those who go out weeping when things don’t. 

God has something to say to a people torn in two, a people who go out weeping and crying but who also dream of restoration, a people who are tempted to fall into despair but are also presented with a promising vision of God.

God has something to say to a people who are tempted to believe in cut and dry answers, who are tempted to believe that truth only comes in certain and sure ways, either/or.

Today, more than ever, I believe what we need in the church is less “either/or” and more “both/and.”

“Both/And” thinking means that when it is tough going, and we don’t deny that, people of faith don’t just give up meeting together. Like Bartimaeus we don’t hide our faith under a rock, o no! We may go out weeping but we still bear the seed for sowing. We still keep on, keeping on. We still do our work faithfully, whatever it may be, however small. Bit by bit, we still go out. Even though it’s not perfect. Even though it’s not like it used to be.

God says, where two or three are gathered, there is Christ with them (Matthew 18:20). Where two or three are gathered, our voice is heard, others hear us and pay attention. 

Where two or three are gathered, other people are not either/or. Where two or three are gathered, there is “no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are … heirs according to the promise.”[3] Where two or three gathered, we are are not either/or people, we are all children of God.

Where two or three are gathered, Jesus hears our calls for help. And with an unconditional love, mercy and grace, Christ comes to us and opens the eyes of our heart. Christ hears us and gives us vision, purpose and courage for the long road ahead.

The big challenge now in the church, I believe, as we do both/and – both online and onsite meetings— is particularly to restore confidence in meeting together, in person, again. That doing so is safe, a public act of faith, and an act that will lead us on the road to our healing and restoration.

[1] Mark 10:46-52

[2] Psalm 126:6

[3] Galatians 3:27-29

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