Sunday, October 25, 2015

Reformation Sunday - October 25, 2015 (Mark 10:46-52)

“Every time a coin into the coffer rings,
Another soul from purgatory springs!”

That was the little jingle that a man named Johann Tetzel is reported to have showed up singing along the streets of northern Germany in the early 1500s. Johann Tetzel was the church official assigned by Pope Leo X to sell something called indulgences in the towns of the farthest reaches of the empire as Rome began a new capital campaign to upgrade the cathedral.

An indulgence was an official certificate that stated the Church had conveyed upon you an extra merit of goodness that Christ and the saints had “built up” in what was called the Treasury of Heaven. By receiving an indulgence (so taught certain factions of the church, including Tetzel), one could cut off the number of days one could spend in purgatory, the place where most people ended up after they died before their sins were totally repaid and they could enter heaven. It was a very complicated and convoluted theory that was easily abused. By the time the 1500’s rolled around, people had been led to believe they could purchase one of these slips of paper in order to guarantee their eternal salvation or that of their loved one’s in some way.

That’s where Johann Tetzel and his little rhyme came in. Not unlike a beggar, he was an aggressive figure, and he came into an economically impoverished northern Germany collecting money for indulgences among people who strongly suspected it was all going to finance the refurbishment of an opulent church they’d never see. And somehow this was supposed to make them feel closer to and more grateful for a God who loved them.

“Every time a coin into the coffer rings,
Another soul from purgatory springs.”

Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses (Gustav Freytag)
As you can imagine, this drove people crazy. In all actuality, the Roman Church did not know that Tetzel was going as far as he did, and he and his views about indulgences were roundly denounced by the Roman church not too long after he was doing this. Unfortunately, however, the damage was done. The people had had enough of Tetzel and his indulgences jar (or table), and their frustration found a voice in another upstart figure, a university professor named Martin Luther. He publicly challenged the whole idea of indulgences along with several other practices of the church and, before he really knew what was going on, a huge rift opened in the Christian church, all over what the nature of the gospel was. What did it mean to have faith in Jesus Christ? Like people throughout history, the people of northern Europe in the late Middle Ages wanted to be assured there was a God who graciously and generously loved them and Tetzel’s jar of coins wasn’t doing it for them.

To help us find that God, we really don’t need to look to Martin Luther, or any other church figure, for that matter. We can go to another beggar with a jar of coins who is on the streets not of northern Germany, but along the road outside Jericho. His name is Blind Bartimaeus, and he sits by the gate crying out with an entirely different “jingle” that goes like this: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Bartimaeus, who drives people crazy with his constant begging and interrupting, who upsets the respectable people surrounding Jesus with his calling out, serves as the perfect example for what it means to trust in a God who generously and graciously loves his people and who trusts that that love can transform one’s life.

I know that here in Richmond we think the people who stand at the street corners and beg for money can be aggressive, but beggars in the Middle East are even more so. In fact, scenes like this one with Bartimaeus play out on a daily basis in cities throughout that region of the world. They sit at places of high traffic, day in and day out, typically with a cup in hand but sometimes collecting handouts in their robe stretched between their legs. Many times they are handicapped or disabled in some way. Bartimaeus has chosen “primary begging real estate” for his spot. The road up from Jericho to Jerusalem was a well-travelled commercial route. It would be like sitting to beg at the point where I-95 and I-64 come together in Richmond.

On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus and his huge entourage have to pass along that way. It’s a little unclear how Bartimaeus, being blind, knows that Jesus is passing by, but we may assume it’s because the crowds following Jesus at this point are just that large and noisy. It’s long been known that people who are deficient in one sense often have heightened sensitivity in others. Maybe Jesus is teaching as he walks and Bartimaeus hears him. Maybe he hears other people calling his name. Regardless, he wastes no time in singing out his jingle: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

"Christ gives sight to Bartimaeus" (William Blake)
And it drives people crazy. Frustrated and bothered, they quickly try to silence him, not unlike the way they had tried to prevent children from being brought to Jesus a few days earlier.

Yet Bartimaeus is undeterred, and he continues to shout louder and louder. Then here is another thing that’s unclear about the story: are Jesus’ followers trying to silence Bartimaeus because they view him as a distraction on the way to Jerusalem, another noisy detour for someone on the margins that they don’t have time for?

Or might they be so eager to distract him because of what he’s actually saying? You see, up until this point in Jesus’ journey, no one has called Jesus “Son of David” yet. Unbelievably, Bartimaeus is the first one to apply that label to Jesus, and it is a label that is loaded with meaning. “Son of David” carried with it all kinds of connotations about God’s coming kingdom. “Son of David” meant the people’s long-awaited king was finally here. Jesus’ entourage is following their wise teacher and powerful healer to Jerusalem, but it seems like the only person able to perceive just what Jesus has really come to do and be is this obnoxious blind person on the side of the road: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” That drives people crazy, because saying that out loud could cause all kinds of trouble for Jesus.

As it turns out, Jesus responds graciously to Bartimaeus—as graciously and generously as God always deals with God’s people. Bartimaeus springs up from the road. He throws off his cloak and coins likely go everywhere.  He recognizes his true riches are in his relationship with this Jesus, Son of David. Bartimaeus is saved by grace through faith. He gains his sight and—here’s the real miracle—he doesn’t go back like Jesus commands him. Instead, he follows his Lord, joining in the parade that will continue to Jerusalem and, as we now know, to the cross.

Reformation Day is kind of a strange thing. It’s a church festival that only Lutherans really commemorate anymore, and it actually is all about calling to mind a time of church division which is not really a thing to celebrate at all. If you are like me and don’t often know how the message of Protestant Reformation fits into these post-modern times, if you don’t know how it really affects your faith with the living Lord, a God who loves generously and graciously,  perhaps blind Bartimaeus can point us in the right direction.

In other words, Reformation Sunday is a good time to step back and consider which jar we, as people of faith, are rattling and which jingle we are singing. That is, does our witness sound more like Tetzels or Bartimaeus’s? Do people in the world hear us proclaiming what we believe with arrogance and insensitivity, calling others to an empty, sham faith that is like an exclusive club which loves to trumpet its good works? Or does the world hear us as sinners, blind and begging, calling out for mercy to a God of infinite love?

As it happens, blind Bartimaeus is an excellent role model for the church, a reminder that an encounter with Jesus is transformative, that a meeting with the Son of David takes us from the sidelines of darkness and brings us into the light. Bartimaeus reminds us that our relationship with God is not based in doing works of mercy, but in calling out to God for mercy. Our own Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, has warned us about assigning too much importance to all our charitable actions, as great as they may be. She said in recent article, “The church is not just a social service organization with sacraments.” Who are we then?  Today we could add that we are the people who primarily cry out to Jesus for mercy.

Bartimaeus also shows us that true faith—the kind of faith that saves us—does not come from having the right insight, but in trusting the One who gives sight. The church has always felt pressure to equate faith with believing certain matters of doctrine or, even worse, aligning itself with certain outside interests, be it an empire or political or social agendas. It is always helpful to remember that saving faith is not found in those things, but in the one who stops along the side of the road to address us and engage us in love. Faith is found not in believing the right things, but in trusting the Son of David who gives his life on the cross.

Finally, the people of God are at their best not when they are obsessed about making a difference, but instead, like Bartimaeus, when they realize that Jesus is all the difference. There is a lot of anxiety among people of faith these days about how relevant the church is in society, panic about the future of the church, and angst about the rise in those who claim no religious affiliation. What are we to do? If people of faith continue to cry out for mercy from the side of the road, from the margins where we find ourselves…if people of faith continue to live lives transformed by the mercy of Jesus…if those who have regained their sight continue to spring up and follow Jesus through suffering to the joy of the resurrection, then there will be no reason for anxiety. There will be no reason for worry or fear. Because it will drive the world crazy. We will drive the world crazy with our hymns of hope and prayers of peace and jingles of joy.
And we can do this all because we trust that there is a God who generously and graciously loves us in Jesus Christ, and he stops along his way help us see. 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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