Blind, but now I see

Mark 10:46-52
Rev. Dr. Robert T. Carlson, Jr.
October 28, 2018
Reformation Sunday

Jericho lies down in the valley just a few miles from Jerusalem. It is just a few miles, but it is a notoriously dangerous road, known to be full of thieves and bandits. Now Jesus and the disciples are quite literally on their way up to Jerusalem.

In the Middle East, village people show honor to an important guest by going some distance out of town to welcome the guest in, and to escort the guest back out of town.  In the early 1960s, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nassar paid a visit to the southern Egyptian town of Assuit. Some villagers walked 10 miles out of town to greet the President’s car. This enthusiastic crowd obliged all the cars in the Presidential party to turn off their engines while people tied ropes to the cars and pulled those cars the last 10 miles into town, as a gesture of honor toward the great man. Now do you understand the Palm Sunday parade a little better?

Crowds lined the road for Jesus as he left Jericho and among the crowd is blind man, known as Bar Timaeus, an Aramaic name that means, “the son of one whose freedom has been bought.” Being the father of a blind man may explain how he came to be an indentured slave in the first place. Now, shortly after we hear Jesus teaching that his journey to Jerusalem will serve as a ransom for many, Jesus encounters a son of one who has been ransomed and who now needs his help.

Again, in traditional Middle Eastern society, beggars are recognized as part of the community. They are offering service to the community by begging for alms. Every pious person is expected to give to the poor which is why it is important that the poor and needy be present at large community events. No beggar would ever say anything like, “Buddy, can you spare a couple of dollars.” No. Beggars typically sit in a public place and call out in a loud voice, “Give to God.” And when the beggar receives a donation—no matter the amount—he usually stands up and in a loud voice proclaims the giver to be the most noble person he has ever met and pronounces blessings on the giver, his family, friends and associates.

When Bartimaeus hears the crowd talking about Jesus, he begins to praise Jesus by name. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Hearing his name and this Messianic title stops Jesus in his tracks. Jesus asks the crowd to call the blind man to him. Jesus has not called anyone since he called the Twelve. Now he is calling Bartimaeus.

The crowd urges Bartimaeus to approach this important man: “Courage. Get up; he is calling you.” Bartimaeus gets up, leaving his cloak behind. This is probably his only possession and he leaves it on the ground and steps toward Jesus. Jesus asks the blind man what he wants—does he want alms or something more. “Teacher, let me see again.” And all Jesus does is speak: “Go; your faith has saved you.” And immediately, he regains his sight and follows Jesus on the way.

Mark has shown us disciples who can’t understand Jesus’ teachings. They don’t expect a Messiah like Jesus. They are expecting glory and honor and reward. Jesus asks James and John the same question he asks Bartimaeus: “What do you want me to do for you?” James and John want a share of Jesus’ glory; they want positions of honor at his right and left hand.  When a rich, young ruler asks to follow Jesus, he cannot leave his many possessions behind. Now, finally here is someone who gets everything right. He recognizes Jesus as Messiah; responds when he hears the sound of Jesus’ voice; leaves everything behind; asks only for his sight; and then follows Jesus on the Way. And who is this perfect disciple? A blind beggar, sitting by the roadside, yelling his head off for Jesus.

There are many reasons this story from Mark’s Gospel has special appeal to thinkers and churches of the Reformation. Bartimaeus is “saved by faith,” a phrase that expressed the core of Protestant belief as articulated by Martin Luther and John Calvin in the 16th century. We are not saved by our blood line or our DNA. We are not saved by merit or by earning our way into God’s favor. We are saved by grace through faith. Larry Hurtado is a Scottish theologian who wonders why on earth anyone became a Christ during the first three centuries. The was extensive social, familial, commercial, political and legal cost to anyone who converted to Christianity. He concludes that it was faith—faith in the one powerfully transcendent God who relates to the world in love, who comes to persons in deep, abiding, eternal relationship with Jesus Christ, who calls persons into community, who requires people to love others, even enemies.[i]

This morning is yet another Sunday morning when we gather in the face of atrocity and evil. A gunman killed 11 people as the left their synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday. It is called the Tree of Life Synagogue, but yesterday it became a place of hatred, sin, and death. This week, someone else sent pipe bombs through the mail to people he perceived to be his enemies. Thankfully, none of them exploded. We have witnessed so many random acts of violence that we can hardly name them all, and our souls grow numb from this madness.

When terrible things happen, we ask, where is God? Christians, Muslims, and Jews all struggle with this question. Why does God permit such atrocities? Why does evil seem so powerful and good seem so ineffective? The prophet Habakkuk asked, “Why are you silent, Lord, while the wicked swallow up the righteous?”

Mary Tudor ascended to the English throne in 1553, 6 years after the death of Henry the 8th. His son, Edward, who was only 9 years old, was named king, but at age 15, Edward died, most likely of tuberculosis. That opened the door for Mary, who was determined to reverse Protestant reforms and return the nation to its Roman Catholic faith. She did so through a reign of terror and death. In less than five years on the throne, Mary became known as “Bloody Mary” because she executed so many enemies and burned more than 300 Protestants.

It is little wonder that Scottish reformer John Knox felt compelled to leave the British Isles. After a spell in Frankfurt, Knox joined a fellowship of religious refugees from across Europe who had thronged to Geneva, Switzerland. The Swiss city’s most famous resident, the French lawyer and humanist John Calvin, was himself a Geneva immigrant. His first prolonged stay in the city came years before, when war in Germany prevented him from traveling to Strasbourg.

In 1553, Calvin was creating a new kind of Christian Church—the church that eventually became known as the Presbyterian Church. Calvin helped create an atmosphere in Geneva welcoming to outsiders. A hospital was established for refugees, as well as an academy for their education. Knox ministered to a congregation of English-speaking refugees that met in the same auditorium where Calvin lectured, the Calvin Auditory, a building still in use today for English worship. This crowded mid-sixteenth century city reverberated with a variety of theological and political ideas that came to define the Reformation. Knox marveled at his time in Geneva, calling it “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles.”

Geneva was far from the perfect city, and Presbyterians are by no means a perfect church. Citizens of Geneva feared losing their power as exiles from France, England and elsewhere grew in number and economic success. Even as the needs of new refugees strained the city budget, many assimilated into the community and became valued members of society. The challenge Genevans faced was how to balance their religious call to hospitality with their sense of being overwhelmed by the vast numbers of newcomers arriving monthly. How could they trust their sovereign God in what felt like chaos?

Reformed tradition’s belief in God’s sovereignty leads Presbyterians, at our best, to take the risk of liberty within the social order, trusting that the One who rules incognito — the sometimes-hidden God—is up to something in human history. It is God who will reign, and that means that our witness to Jesus Christ is “the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”[ii]

Calvin’s emphasis on placing full trust in God, as opposed to any earthly ruler, aimed to infuse Genevan life with gratitude and faith. He hoped that the doctrine of salvation through election would ease the anxieties of a people living in an age of plague, war, and dislocation. For Calvin and for Knox, growing in trust of God and love for God enlarged a community’s ability to respond to God’s call to love and service, no matter where its residents came from.

Tonight, at 5:30, we will host our 3rd Friendship Dinner with members and leaders from the Islamic Center in East Lansing. If we are going to rebuild trust between peoples, if we are going to manifest the kind of resilience, mercy, grace and gratitude that it takes to live together in these times, it will begin with the kind of relationships we are building with Muslim people, with Jewish people from the three synagogues in town, and with all sorts of people, from all kinds of places, who are here, in our midst, right now.

Our purpose as a church is to let the world know about the mercies of God—not just past mercies, but mercies that are still to happen. By our words and deeds, we declare that no trouble is beyond the reach of God’s mercy; no quarrel or dispute is beyond God’s reconciling love; no abandonment or isolation leaves one so helpless that God’s mercy cannot reach.

The Apostle Peter reminds us: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” That means everything to us, and to the world in which we live. It is what the world in its desolate anxiety does not know. God is not merely a theory or a good idea: God is an agent who turns what was into what will be. God is always accomplishing some new act of mercy, and we—we are the ones who get to tell it and show it. We are God’s new people, with a new purpose, a purpose for which the world waits. Yes, greed and anger and anxiety persist—but God’s mercy is greater than all of these; if only we who are blind can learn how to see. Amen.

[i] Larry W. Hurtado, Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?, Milwaukee, Marquette University Press, 2016.

[ii] This quote is from the Theological Declaration of Barmen, 1934.