Sunday, October 29, 2006

Twenty-first Sunday in Pentecost or Reformation Sunday
Jeremiah 31:7-9
Psalm 126
Hebrews 7:23-28
Mark 10:46-52
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 46
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36

Go thy way; thy faith hath made thee whole.

Driving a car in severe weather can be a very difficult task. When it is raining extremely hard or if the fog is thick, we can’t see beyond a few feet. It is even harder to drive in the middle of a blizzard because the roads become covered in white. Cars often end up in ditches at the side of the road because the driver could not see. When we find ourselves in a dangerous weather situation we really should find a place to pull over to wait out the weather, but we tend to go on thinking that we can handle whatever lies ahead. We don’t want to get stuck away from family and friends, we would rather feel safe in the comfort of their companionship than waiting out the poor weather.

Unfortunately, we hear stories every year about car accidents brought on by weather related difficulties. There was one story about a two hundred car pile-up in California caused by fog. The first lady slammed on her breaks to avoid hitting something she thought she saw in the road. None of the cars behind her could see and they rammed into the pile-up. It would have been much better on that day for those cars to have stayed home, but we go out with the confidence that we won’t be the one harmed and with the certainty that the world can’t go on without us. We think that our work is so important that it is worth risking our lives.

Yet, when I have been driving in blinding weather I spend most of the time praying for sight. “Let me see again.” I keep going, thinking that the fog will disappear after then next bend or that the rain will stop at any moment. I try to get myself to safety when I probably should just stop and wait.

The sixteenth century was a time of darkness. It was dark because the people were very superstitious. Other worldly beings dominated the imaginations of those living in Europe – beings such as fairies, demons and the like. The fears of the people were exploited by both the religious and the secular leaders of the day. The sale of indulgences fed the need for people to do something to earn the favor of God, and it helped the leaders build a huge beautiful new cathedral. They convinced the people that they could buy salvation for themselves and for those they loved. Indulgences were even sold to aid those thought to be wallowing in purgatory, exploiting the love and concern of the people for their dearly departed loved ones.

Of course there were many other things going on in the Church in that day, so many that Martin Luther decided to challenge his colleagues to discuss the issues. He posted the “Ninety Five Theses” on the door of Wittenberg Church on October 31, 1517 to insight debate among the intellectuals. Unfortunately, Martin Luther lived at the wrong time – or the right time, depending on how you look at it – and his theses became the foundation of what is known today as the Reformation. Thanks to the political upheaval of the time and to the invention of the printing press, Luther’s Theses became more than an academic exercise. They became a catalyst for change.

While there were many issues, the most important thing to Martin Luther was that God was the source of all grace. He lived in a time when people were blind; they were trying to get somewhere without seeing where they were going. They were trying to work their way to heaven, but where missing the path. Martin Luther was obsessed with the need to confess every sin, believing that without his confession God could not forgive. He even feared for the spiritual well-being of his congregation because he was sure that his sin would invalidate the sacraments. He learned, through studying God’s word, that there was nothing he could do to earn heaven. He couldn’t buy freedom from purgatory or earn forgiveness. These things came by the grace of God and the work of Jesus Christ.

Though the scriptures I am using for this week are not the typical Reformation Day passages, but rather those used if following the ordinary calendar, there is a Reformation Day message in the stories of Israel’s salvation and Bartimaeus’ sight. Jeremiah offers a promise from God, a promise of salvation for those who have been exiled. The path that they would walk would be directed by God Himself. “Behold, I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the uttermost parts of the earth, and with them the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her that travaileth with child together: a great company shall they return hither.”

This salvation was not meant for a select few or for only those who are perfect. As a matter of fact, God was ready to answer to all those who called out to Him, even the blind. Imagine what it must have been like for Bartimaeus. He had heard stories about Jesus and he knew that Jesus could help him. In today’s Gospel story, Jesus, the disciples and the crowds were leaving Jericho. They passed by the city gates where beggars might sit in the hope that a pilgrim or passerby might give a morsel or a coin. He heard that Jesus was coming, so he called out, “Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me.” He was a nobody – even less than a nobody. He was blind, so he was cursed. According to the understanding of the religion of that day, he must be a sinner to be suffering such a fate.

The crowds didn’t think Jesus needed to bother with poor old blind Bartimaeus. They told him to be quiet, but Bartimaeus would not give up. He continued to call to Jesus until Jesus heard. Jesus stopped and called to Bartimaeus, “Call him to me.” The blind beggar called out to God and Jesus answered.

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked. Can you imagine receiving such grace? What if you were a worker bee at a large company and the CEO stopped by your desk to ask, “What can I do for you?” What if you were a hungry man at a soup kitchen approached by the richest man in town? Would you have the boldness of poor old blind Bartimaeus? Would you ask the big request?

Bartimaeus did not ask for healing; he asked to see again. I wonder what happened to cause his blindness? Was it an accident, an illness? He must have had vision at some point in his life, how long was he suffering this blindness? Being blind in Jesus’ day was much harder than it is today. Though blindness is a disability, many blind people in our age are able to lead normal, independent lives. For Bartimaeus, blindness meant rejection, hunger, begging. It meant being outcast from society and persecution. It meant exile, like the Israelites in the passage from Jeremiah.

Bartimaeus did not let his low position stop him from crying out to God. “Save me.” I wonder if Bartimaeus was feeling like he had lost his faith. Did he blame God for his blindness? Did he feel abandoned by God? Did he feel like there was nothing left spiritually as well as physically? Yet, when he heard Jesus was coming, he cried out. Then he asked Jesus, “I want to see again.” I am certain he wanted to see with his eyes, for sight would give him his old life back. Did he also want to see with his heart? Jesus answered, “Go thy way; thy faith hath made thee whole.” Jesus provided him healing – his eyes and his heart. He was made whole because he believed in Jesus.

It is said that Martin Luther used to spend hours confessing his sins, desperate to confess every little thing he’d ever done wrong. He was imprisoned by his fear and doubt. Though there were those who tried to show him God’s grace, it took a moment of desperation in his darkness to cry out to God for help. “Save me.” God answered through scripture. He was reminded that it is by faith we are saved, like the faith of Bartimaeus. And faith is a gift. There is nothing anyone can do to earn God’s grace, to deserve heaven. There is nothing we can do because we are frail, sinful people. Yet, God loved us so much that He gave Jesus – the perfect priest who presented the perfect sacrifice, Himself.

Martin Luther was like a man living in darkness, weighed down by the burden of his sin. But God answered with the gift of sight – spiritual sight. He was no longer blinded by the foolish ways of the world in which he lived, but was bound by grace in faith. He knew the joy of that freedom, the freedom that comes from complete trust in God. We can cry out to God in our blindness and ask Him to see again. He will stop, call us to Himself and grant us what we desire. Jesus continues to intercede for us even as He sits at the right hand of God because His ministry is eternal. Thanks be to God.

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