Reformation Day Sermon 2018
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
I decided to preach on the Gospel that would normally be used on this day rather than the Reformation Day Gospel, which is always from John, chapter 8, because I think this passage speaks powerfully to the kinds of issues that Martin Luther faced during the Reformation and the issues that arise as perennial problems within the church.
The story is simple. Jesus and the disciples are leaving Jericho, along with a large crowd. Along the roadside sat a blind beggar. Someone told him Jesus was passing by, and this beggar began shouting out for Jesus to pay attention to him, to have mercy on him, to heal him. The disciples and others in the crowd found this annoying and told him to quiet down. But he persisted until Jesus gave him an audience. Jesus asked him what he wanted, and the man requested that he restore his sight. In response, Jesus healed him, the man began to see again, and he joined the crowds that were following Jesus.
It struck me, as I read this, that there are two kinds of blindness revealed in this story. The first, of course, is the physical blindness of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar. If you or a loved one or friend has ever had to deal with this infirmity, you know how devastating it can be. My grandfather went blind from diabetes, and he never did recover from the emotional toll of having to deal with that from the prime of his life until the day he died.
But there is a second blindness in this story that is even more serious and deadly. It is the spiritual and emotional blindness of the religious people all around this blind man who ignored him, who passed him by every day as he begged by the roadside, who marginalized him and didn’t think he was worthy of Jesus’ attention when he called out for him. These are the very people that we are called to care for, to honor, to help, to welcome, and to serve. And yet he sat day by day, virtually unseen and unnoticed, consigned to a life of begging others to survive.
This, in my view, is an apt metaphor for the state of the church in the days of Martin Luther 500 years ago. The common people, the people who needed the support of the church, the ones for whom the church was called to care, were being abandoned by that church.
About ten years after Luther nailed his theses on the Wittenberg door, he and his colleagues visited the congregations in their region to assess their spiritual health. What Luther saw horrified him. He wrote, “Mercy! Dear God, what great misery I beheld! The common person, especially in the villages, has no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine. And unfortunately, many pastors are completely unable and unqualified to teach… Yet, everyone says they are Christians, have been baptized, and receive the holy Sacraments, even though they cannot even recite the Lord’s Prayer or the Creed or the Ten Commandments. They live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs…”
Then Luther addressed the leaders of the church: “O bishops! What answer will you ever give to Christ for having so shamefully neglected the people and never for a moment fulfilled your office?” Not only had the church failed in its duty to teach the people, but it was actively manipulating and using them for its own enrichment. One of the great evidences of this, which Luther called for debate upon in his original act of nailing the 95 Theses on the church door, was in the use of indulgences to promise people eternal spiritual blessings if only they would give their money to the church for its projects.
And so the common people in Luther’s day, suffering from much spiritual blindness, were being neglected, marginalized, and abused by the blind leadership of the church. This deplorable spiritual blindness of the people and the failure of the church to care for them and to nourish them in the gospel, which Luther saw firsthand in 1528, led him to write his Small Catechism, which I consider to be his most important and impactful work.
The Reformation was a pastoral necessity. The ordinary Christian people were like sheep without a shepherd, like wanderers in the wilderness, like lost people stumbling around in the dark, like blind folks being led by the blind.
The answer Martin Luther found to this terrible state of affairs was the same answer we see in our text from Mark today. Through the gospel, Luther called attention to Jesus. Through his preaching and his writings, he brought Jesus and his saving, healing grace to the marginalized and neglected people of Germany. Jesus stopped there in Luther’s day just as he stopped on that day long ago in Jericho, and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” And Luther and the people cried out, “Lord, we want to see again! We want to be set free from our spiritual blindness! We want to begin to truly follow you again!”
This remains our calling today, my friends here at St. George. All around us every day are people who are struggling in spiritual blindness. They are hungry and thirsty for meaning in life. They feel that God has abandoned them. They are crying out in a variety of ways for someone to hear them, for someone to give them the dignity of paying attention to them.
Unfortunately , there remain Christian people, churches, ministers, and entire church institutions who are deaf to their cries, blind to their needs, and more concerned to use them for their own ends rather than bringing them to Jesus.
Let’s not be the people who ignore them, push them to the side of the road, and tell them they don’t matter. We who are walking with Jesus have the opportunity to bring them to him so that they can find the healing and help they need.
We who sing, “I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see” must not allow ourselves to be blind to those around us, those who are being left out, those out sitting by the side of the road.
May the Reformation always lead us not only to have the light, but also to hold it out for others in darkness.