Sunday, October 25, 2015

"Courage for New Vision". A sermon on Mark 10:46-52 and Isaiah 43:18-21 for Reformation Sunday at Littlefield Presbyterian Church.

"Courage for New Vision"
Isaiah 43:18-21; Mark 10:46-52

One of the major themes in Mark's gospel is how spiritually blind the disciples were.  Last week we heard Mark's account of how James and John were so spiritually blind that, in their grasping for worldly privilege, they asked Jesus to let them sit on his right and left sides in glory.  They didn't seem to know there was anything wrong with their vision.
            In today’s gospel lesson, we find Bartimaeus sitting by the side of the road, begging for his living.  He doesn't have a perfect understanding of who Jesus is.  But he knows what he needs.  Even though Bartimaeus is physically blind, he's clearly focused on what he wants more than anything else in the world.  He wants to be able to see.   And so, when he hears that Jesus of Nazareth is coming down the road, Bartimaeus calls out, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"

            Now, in asking to be healed,  Bartimaeus is taking  a risk.  It'll be the end of his old life.  If he regains his sight, he won't be able to sit by the road and beg for a living.  He might see some things he won't want to see.  His new life will be strange and new. 
            Mark holds Bartimaeus up as a model of faith.   He knew what he needed and wanted more than anything else in the world.  He had the courage to see strange, new things.  He believed that Jesus could heal him.  So—even though there were people trying to discourage him, telling him to be quiet-- Bartimaeus dared to cry out to Jesus--  over and over--  and ask for vision.   "Let me SEE again."
            And just like that.  Just words.  No mud or spittle this time, like the last time Mark told about Jesus healing a blind man.[1]  Not even a touch.  In the blinking of an eye, Bartimaeus can see!  His faith has made him well!
            "Go your way,"  Jesus tells him.  But Bartimaeus doesn't go his way.  Right then he decides that Jesus' way will be his way, and he chooses to walk with Jesus, on the way.  His faith and his new vision enable him to follow Jesus as his disciple.
            "Go your way,"   Jesus says.   Jesus doesn't force or coerce us.  He invites us to choose freely which way we go. 
            After years of blindness, I imagine there were places Bartimaeus might have wanted to go...  things he wanted to see.  Yet it's clear in the story that immediately Bartimaeus becomes a disciple   and follows Jesus on the way.  It’s as if—once he can really see--  there's no other way.
            From earliest times in the church, restoring of sight has been a metaphor for the new life experienced in Christ   and for spiritual discernment.  In the early days of the church, the act of baptism was referred to in Greek as “enlightenment.”  The story of the man born blind and the story of blind Bartimaeus became part of the curriculum of instruction for new church members.  
            When we open ourselves to Christ’s healing grace, we begin to see things differently.  As we begin to see the world through Christ’s eyes--  the eyes of love--  our values are changed...  and our priorities are re-ordered.  We’re re- formed.
            Today on Reformation Sunday, we remember our history as a church...  to remember that our Reformed tradition is a living tradition. One of the great watchwords of the Reformed tradition is Semper Reformanda":  The church Reformed, always being reformed, by the Holy Spirit, according to the word of God.
            Reformation Sunday commemorates the occasion in 1517 when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany.  Just as God worked through the reformers who came before Martin Luther and John Calvin--  Jan Hus and the Czech Brethren, the Waldensians, John Wycliffe, and the Hussites,  as well as those who came after them--  Zwingli, John Knox, and others,   God has continued to work through the Spirit during the whole sweep of Christian history. 
            In several recent books, Phyllis Tickle describes the time we live in now as “The Great Emergence,” and offers a big-picture theory of how Christianity is changing and why.  In her book The Great Emergence, Tickle observed that about every 500 years the church cleans out its attic and has a “rummage sale.” 
            Going backward in time 500 years before our time is the Great Reformation.  Five hundred years prior to the Great Reformation is the Great Schism, around 1054, when the Greek or Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity and the Roman branch separated. 
            Five hundred years prior to that takes us back to Gregory the Great, who became pope in a time of total upheaval following the fall of the Roman Empire… a time of bitter dissension, when the Oriental branch of Christianity—Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian, and Syrian-- was separated from both Western and Eastern Christianity.  Pope Gregory is known as “Great” because he was able to build on the work of St. Benedict in the monastic movement in building a kind of church-political coherence of monasteries and convents that were centers of learning and service, and that would protect, preserve, and characterize the Christian movement for the next five centuries through the Dark Ages.
            If we look back approximately 500 years before that, we’re looking at what Tickle and others call the Great Transformation 2,000 years ago--  the age that gave us the Christian faith in the first place.
            I’m grateful to Tickle for her big-picture framework of how the Spirit of God has worked over the centuries to reform the Christian faith, and for how she shows how the re-formation in the church has always been related to the political, economic, and social upheavals that were also taking place.
            Tickle and others point to historical forces that combined to produce the Great Reformation:  the invention of the printing press, the rise of nation-states, corruption in religious institutions, and the emergence of an educated elite.  Every religion is tied to the culture in which it exists, just as it informs the society.  Five hundred years after the Great Reformation, we are experiencing corresponding challenges in communications, politics, religion, and scholarship.[2]  Think of the changes in our society in just the past few decades!
            This is a whole new time in the church, and for a lot of people it can be scary.  In a major study released earlier this year, the Pew Research Center describes a “changing U.S. Religious Landscape,” in which Christians have been delining sharply as a share of the population, while unaffiliated and other faiths continue to grow.         
            This is the context we live in.   I agree with Diana Butler Bass  when she writes: in this new context, “we need to know who we are with great clarity and personal commitment.   At the same time, we need to be able to love our neighbors and work beyond faith boundaries to create a new shared sense of common good.  This will call for a different sort of church than the one we knew in the centuries that came before.”[3]
            The church is being called to a new way of life.  We’re being called to re-create our identity building on the wisdom of the past, and to embrace the questions of an emerging future in which Christians may be a minority in a pluralistic society.  Part of the good news of this is that Christians have often been more faithful and creative when we are not in charge of the society.
            On this Reformation Sunday, we could celebrate what happened 500 years ago…and then hold on for dear life to the way we’re comfortable with doing church.  We could do that.  But I don’t think that’s a faithful way to celebrate the church’s journey in faith.
            We live in a broken and fearful world, and we could find so much to be afraid of.  As a congregation, we could retreat into our familiar ways of doing church, and try to find comfort and security in being a nice and friendly little congregation. 
            Or we can ask Jesus to give us the ability to see things in new, fresh ways.  We can hear the call to “take heart”—to have courage—and follow Jesus gratefully into new opportunities and possibilities. 
            We can remember how God spoke to faithful people in a hard time, saying, “Look.  I’m doing something new.  Don’t you perceive it?”
            God is still working on us, leading us further into the truth.  The church does make progress.  It comes through the painful process of repentance...  changing our minds...  and correcting our practice.
            The good news is that--  in God’s presence--  miracles do happen.  And so, my friends, take heart.  Do we have the courage to see? 
            Jesus offers us the gift of vision, so we can see to follow him.  He  invites us to come and see the world through HIS eyes...  to see new possibilities...  and have new values and priorities, both as individuals and as the church.    He invites us to have our eyes opened to the truth of God’s redeeming love...  and to follow him in an adventure of faith.
            And so, my friends, take heart!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
October 26, 2015

[1] Mark 8:22-25
[2] Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (Harper One, 2009), p. 154.

[3] Diana Butler Bass, “What Can the Church Become?”    Posted October 25, 2012 at

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