(sermon 10/25/15 – Reformation Sunday)
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. – Mark 10:46-52
There are few things that are more inherently human than wanting to be part of some “in” group or another. It must go back to our very origins. I can imagine bands of cavemen splitting up into gangs. Of course, it probably started out for security, but it probably didn’t take long for it to evolve into something more. Maybe this group formed because it wore saber-toothed tiger skins, which was way cooler than the regular old grizzly bear skins that gang in the next valley over wore. I’m sure it started that long ago, and we’re obviously still doing it today. The thing about being part of an “in” group, though, is that it can only work by defining someone as “out” of it. By definition, it has to be exclusive; it has to tightly control who’s excluded. And this is never more obvious than when it comes to religion. I mean sure, it’s a big thing in the business world or in social settings to be part of the in crowd, but with religion, when you’re out of the club, it’s God who’s excluding you, or so the reasoning goes, anyway.
I think this is an important part of what we can see in today’s gospel reading. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and as he’s on his way people are thronging all around him – he’s a celebrity. No doubt, some of them are wanting some favor from him, and some of them are following along to see what’s really going to happen once he reaches Jerusalem. A lot of them, no doubt, are just gathered around him to be part of his “in” group, and soak up a little bit of fame-by-association. Jesus groupies. Others maybe wanting to say “Well, I was following Jesus before it was popular,” kind of Jesus-hipsters. Whatever the reason, they all want to be part of Jesus’ “in” group.
And then, as they’re walking along, Bartimaeus has the audacity, the social inappropriateness, to challenge that. He’s blind, which surely, the conventional religious wisdom of the day would say, meant that God was punishing him for some terrible sin in his life, and obviously had no business being around this obviously holy man of God. And he didn’t do the decent thing and be quiet; he just kept on yelling for Jesus’ attention. It probably came as a bit of a surprise to the crowd when Jesus stopped and told them to call him over. So the crowd parts and probably with a bit of condescension they told Bartimaeus, this must be your lucky day, Jesus says he want to see you. So Mark tells us that Bartmaeus threw off his cloak, jumped up, and apparently with the help of some of the people in the crowd, made his way to Jesus.
By the way, what’s up with the cloak? I mean, here’s a blind beggar, and he throws off his cloak in the middle of a big crowd. How’s he ever going to find it again? Couldn’t he have just held onto it when he went over to Jesus? It’s an odd detail, but Mark, who never seems to have been overly wordy in his whole gospel, thinks it’s an important detail to tell. I don’t know.
In any case, Jesus tells Bartimaeus that his faith has made him well. But what faith is that? Jesus didn’t grill Bartimaeus on his theology. He didn’t ask him about Covenant Theology versus Arminianism; he never once asked Bartimaeus what he thought about predestination. He didn’t ask him for a written statement of faith about the Trinity or the Incarnation. As far as that goes, Bartimaeus probably never would have considered Jesus as God in the flesh; he kept calling him Son of David – the term Jews used to refer to the coming messiah that they understood was just a human and only a human, instead of the more divine Son of God or Son of Man.
It seems that the only faith that Bartimaeus expressed was a faith that Jesus actually *could* help him, and that Jesus would actually *want* to do so. Him, an apparent sinner. And that he’d want to help him despite the conventional religious wisdom of all the people who had attached themselves to him and identified with him, who considered Bartimaeus an outsider.
Bartimaeus was a Reformer. He challenged the established religious assumptions of the crowd.
On Reformation Sunday, we tend to focus on the history of the 16th-century European church – the one strand of global Christianity that we happen to be part of. But the Reformation didn’t start with Martin Luther sticking his tongue out at the Pope. It’s really an ongoing process that goes back at least as far back as the ancient Hebrew prophets, and going through Jesus himself, and Bartimaeus. Each step of the way, it involved a calling of the religious establishment to a greater understanding of God’s ways than they’d held to date. This reformed and reforming way of understand God, and us, and the relationship between us, wound its way through those stuffy 16th– century men and it’s kept on going. We see it in Reverend Henry Fowler and the other abolitionists. We see it in Harry Emerson Fosdick and the professors of Auburn Seminary and the other champions of the Modernist-Fundamentalist Controversy. We see it in Margaret Towner, the first female ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church; we see it in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Eugene Carson Blake and the other Christian voices of the Civil Rights movement; we see it in Desmond Tutu and Allan Boesak, the primary author of the Belhar Confession, who fought against apartheid in South Africa in society and the church, and who are both now working for the further broadening of the church’s acceptance. And we see it in Pope Francis, who excoriated his own synod of bishops this past week for their “cold hearts” and “sticking [their] heads in the sand,” refusing to see the new directions that Christ is calling the church. And that ongoing reforming spirit will continue on, long after us. In fact, the only time the church is in danger is when people want to try to preserve it, unchanged, as if it were in a glass case, and it’s just as dangerous whether the case was built in 1660 or 1960.
So much of the church’s energy has been spent in trying to draw lines and build fences, trying to define who was in, and who was out, based on all sorts of tests. A key battleground of the Reformation was where the ultimate authority in the faith could be found – in the Pope and other human leaders of the earthly church, or in the scriptures rightly interpreted. In either case, that authority would be used in order to tightly define who was an insider and who was an outsider in the church. As we see in today’s gospel lesson, Bartimaeus wouldn’t have put up with any of it. He had a simple faith that Jesus could and would accept him and help him. And Jesus did just that, probably to the consternation of those gathered around him.
I’ve talked about how it can help us to draw meaning out of a passage of scripture by putting ourselves in various places in the story; seeing it through the eyes of various characters, and this is a great story to do that exercise with. I suppose it could be unsettling to us, challenging news, if we imagine this story, if we place ourselves within it, as one of the people gathered around Jesus, and walking along the road with him – as if we’re one of the Jesus-groupies. And there really is an important message for us there, to always be alert to the voice of God, and the spirit of reformation, and Christ’s calling those of us gathered around him to clear a path and to welcome the others, the outsiders, into the circle of his embrace. That’s an important point, but if we aren’t careful, that can turn into just another sermon that beats people over the shoulders for something that maybe we’re doing wrong, or we need to do better. There isn’t a lot of grace in a message like that. It becomes just another thing on our to-do list. That’s just more bad news.
Maybe that has to be. The great preacher and writer Frederick Buechner once wrote that the gospel has to be bad news before it can be good news, and that’s our bad news in this text. But the story doesn’t end there; there is good news, very good news for us, too – and we see when we experience this story from where Bartimaeus is sitting. And we should be able to do that easily because in reality, we are, you know; or at least, at some point in the whole history of the church, we have been there. Realize that every single one of us here today has at least one, and maybe more, inherent characteristics that the established church has at one time or another used to exclude us from Christ’s Church, and that it used to marginalize us into lesser, incomplete members, even after it grudgingly opened its membership to us. Every single one of us.
That’s really something to think about. Every one of us is here today as a result of the church having to go through a difficult adjustment of hearing Jesus’ command to allow us to draw near to him against their original instincts. Each of us is here as a result of the continual, ongoing reformation of the church, evolving to be more and more an illustration of the wideness of God’s love and acceptance of us. Even while today we recognize our traditions and history, *that’s* what this day is really a celebration of. It isn’t just about Zwingli and Hus and Luther and Calvin and Knox and a bunch of other dead white guys. It’s about the Church Universal, reformed and always being reformed consistent with the truths of scripture that are revealed more and more deeply to us over time. This is a day to be happy and thankful that in Christ’s eyes, as long as we have the kind of faith seen in Bartimaeus, there really is no “in” and “out,” there’s only “in,” no matter what anyone else says. That seems to be Jesus’ message in this story. And that was something that Bartimaeus saw perfectly well.
Thanks be to God.