John 8:31-36; John 9:39-41; Mark 10:46-52
Pr. Scott Kramer
This coming Wednesday, October 31st, millions of people across our land will celebrate Halloween, as our friends in Mexico will celebrate the Day of the Dead. In Celtic tradition October 31st marks the first day of the “natural year.” Over the past 500 years Lutherans around the world have known it as Reformation Day. For me, the day is more personal. It’s my mother’s birthday, for one thing. And, twenty-five years ago, on October 31st, 1993, I was ordained as a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
I’d like to think that the story of my life, especially since my ordination day, is one of continual spiritual growth. At least, I’d like to think I’ve maintained a fairly faithful life in response to the gospel of Jesus Christ–the story of God’s unconditional love for me, for you, and for all people. I’d like to think that maybe there’s steady, upward trajectory in my faith and will be until I die.
The reality, however, is quite different. It’s more like a constant mixed bag. When I catch myself thinking or saying things that aren’t kind or loving, I think, “Where did that come from?” or, “There I go again,” or, “What was I thinking?” Sometimes, though, it’s a pleasant surprise. I find myself doing or saying good things that also make me wonder, “Where did that come from?” On any given day, my spiritual life can look like the stock market on a turbulent day, or, an the EKG of an irregular heartbeat!
In the Reformation Sunday reading we hear every year, Jesus says, “…the truth will make you free.” Truth is not popular in our time. Truth for millions of people is whatever feels right, whatever sounds good, whatever makes me feel less fearful, whatever serves my self-interest, whatever I want it to be. And when you have permission and encouragement for untruth from the very peak of power in our society, the malignancy spreads and we create a reality of our own making–not the truth that will make us free.
We talk a lot about being free, but are we really? Unkind thoughts and words morph into lies, threats, intimidation, and, as we saw this past week, bombs in the mail and a synagogue turned into a war zone.
Our scriptures frequently describe such a spiritual condition as “blindness.” Today’s story of blind Bartimaeus is one such story. It’s deceptively simple; it seems to be about a blind man whom Jesus heals. But of course, there’s more to it than that. It turns out that the blind man is the one who sees the truth, and it’s the people all around him who can see who are blind to the truth. In fact, in today’s story, they do their best to shut him up.
And why? Because Bartimaeus was politically dangerous! “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” To our ears it sounds religious, not political. But it’s not the blind man’s request to be healed but his persistent, public shouting the truth that alarms them. He is the Son of David. Jesus—not Caesar—is king!
Shouting down outsiders is what tyrants, bullies, and their followers always do. Just as the crowd shouted down the blind man by the roadside in today’s story, so also today’s tyrants shout down a caravan coming north through Mexico; shout down the voices of Black Lives Matter; shout down those who challenge those who insist on two genders and one sexual orientation only.
But in the midst of the shouting, the attempts to silence and repress the outsider among us, we discover who’s really blind in this story. It’s not the man who can’t see. It’s those who surround Jesus, proclaiming their adoration but failing to practice his teaching, which is the point of human life itself: the practice of love.
But in this story, instead of joining the shouting, Jesus is the only one in the story to engage the outsider and listen to him. “Call him here,” Jesus commands. When Bartimaeus the blind man approaches, Jesus asks him a question: “What do you want me to do for you?” he asks.
“What do you want me to do for you?” It’s exactly the same question as Jesus asked his disciples in last week’s reading. And their reply was, “Make us sit, one on your left hand and one on your right!” Make us great! “Make America Great Again!”
Bartimaeus’ reply is very different: “Let me see again!” It’s at this point we realize that Bartimaeus hasn’t always been blind. He wants to see again!
Dear friends, it’s here that we’re invited into the story with our own answer. What do we want Jesus to do for us? To what extent is our relationship to him fixed on what he can do to make our lives smoother, safer, more comfortable, less difficult, less anxious?
On the face of things, it seems that Bartimaeus was asking something for himself. And that much is true; he wanted to see. But if this story is not just about physical blindness; if this story is about spiritual things then Bartimaeus’ request is more than just about him. “Let me see again!” could be one of the best requests—the best prayers—that any of us could make in our time! Remove our blindness, God, so that we can see the truth, to be God’s strong public voice in the world!
On this Reformation Sunday I’m thinking of one of the most famous Lutherans in our time. Rick Steves is known to many of us as a world-famous travel guru, but he’s more than that. He’s a member of Trinity Lutheran in Lynnwood and uses his clout to proclaim gospel truth. This past week, for example, Minjing and I watched an hour-long special that he produced called, “The Story of Fascism in Europe,” the story of how over more than two decades the German and Italian people sought a truth of their own making. Chasing after lies, they chose leaders who led them to their own destruction. In this program Rick Steves never mentioned Donald Trump and the American people; he didn’t have to.
On this Reformation Sunday I remember that my spiritual life day to day is a mixed bag. Being a pastor doesn’t make me better than others. I fail every day at the practice of love, sometimes miserably! That’s not the whole story but it’s certainly an important part of the truth. And I remember that I’m not alone in that. Martin Luther, the founder of our faith, was a mix of good and evil, too. This great founder of our faith hated Jews and his teachings were used to justify unspeakable evil in your own lifetimes.
As we survey the landscape of our lives, we can surely see times of blindness and times of sight. Hopefully, we know that right in this moment we see in some ways and are blind in others. We seek truth in some ways and remain willfully blind in others. We practice love in some ways, not in others. For the sake of the outsider, the person on the side of the road, the outcast, the blind man Bartimaeus invites you and me to recognize our blindness and pray the prayer he prayed: Jesus, Son of David, let me see again!