Based on Mark 10:46-52
What should a would-be faithful pastor say today? It is all too much. Just too much. This whole week the shadow side of this nation has been exposed as more evil than we would ever want to imagine. The violence of rhetorical and real bombs and bullets gave way to a mass killing of sisters and brothers at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, the largest event anti-Semitic violence in American history. Then as the usual demonic anti-liturgy began with its victim blaming that people of faith should be armed (!), haters simply amped up on their preferred networks with their anti-Semitic dog whistles about globalism and Jewish funded refugees headed to our –our?–promised land. On and on, the haters believe they have license to extend their toxicity and the talking heads who earn their money by performative outrage continue to stir up fear and hate in the vast innocent public majority. What would, what must a faithful pastor say today, especially a Lutheran pastor, this Reformation Sunday, when so much of the positive of our legacy is stained by the anti-Semitism of our very founder? Luther’s own writings against the Jews were used before and during WWII to co-opt the church and attack the gospel. We Lutherans officially have condemned and repudiate that part of ourselves, as we do and must condemn it wherever we see it. That is in line with Luther’s much more positive and central theological maxim that the faithful theologian and pastor will call evil for what it is and the good for what it is.
So here we are and here I am. I recognize too that we come to church on a Sunday not for politics, but for comfort, healing, and renewal. But such solace is unachievable without naming the illness itself. If the spiritual doctor is going to humbly help heal, the diagnosis must be named clearly and honestly. Dear sisters and brothers, a typhoon of anxiety is filling the air. Responsible historians state confidently that ours is the most divisive time since the Civil War. The relentless toxicity of it all tempts even the most peaceful of us to incivility. A highly respected and dear member here at Christ the King Church confessed recently that while walking her dog she thought seriously about letting the dog lift its leg on a certain neighborhood yard sign. That may seem trivial, but it is not. Not in the slightest. Evil looks for its footholds especially in the most routine parts of our lives.
Add to that our own real personal stresses and struggles. Like many of you, Joen and I both are in that “sandwich stage” of life of caring for our remaining parents while worrying also about the future of our grandchildren. This past week Joen was checking in on her declining mother in Iowa while I attended to my ever shrinking mother in San Diego. I was bothered by having to share space with mom’s dog. Her name is Zoe. The dog, not my mom. That’s ironic, because “Zoe” comes from a Greek word meaning “life,” and few creatures are more life-draining than this dog. She would non-stop bark anytime I rolled over on my bed, the living room couch, disturbing my mom’s and my own sleep. I worried also because once she bit my nose. Again, I mean the dog, not my mom. But miracle of miracles, Zoe came to accept me and even let me pat her back. My smile at this was broadened by the picture book my brother-in-law published of Zoe posing at famous San Diego locations. He titled the book, “Places I’ve Taken a Shih-Tzu.” The title achieves the same purpose for me as might happen for some who let their pet spoil a yard sign.
And it is not trivial. If we can laugh there is hope within us. Where there is hope, there is trust. And where trust, then the inspiration and ability to act, to change the world. If our trust is in Christ Jesus above all things, we will act as he wants us to act and we will want to act as he wants us to.
That was the situation Mark tells us about Blind Bartimaeus, who I will call Bart. It was the situation for Martin Luther in what became the Reformation. It is our situation today in this roiled hate-inspired world of misplaced trust, gaslighting, cynicism, wayward pets, violence, and high anxiety. What anxiety and rage even blind Bart must have had! There he was, once able to see, now not. There, with whatever condition his condition was in, he’d totally have to depend on others and mostly by listening to what they had to say; “did y’all hear the latest about what was going down in Jerusalem, about how the Roman Tetrarch Donaldus built a new faulty tower, or Blind Betty found her lost coins? Hey, Bart, maybe you ought to hook up with her!” But usually his friends would try to make him behave. “Shoosh! Accept your victimhood; stay status quo, no matter the injustice. Don’t upset the system!” But when he seized on the few good words he had heard about Jesus, aka the Son of David, and that he was coming Bart’s way, Bart didn’t care about making a racket or if the political implications might bring the fascists down on them all. He knew that he was on the knife edge of right and wrong, life and death, and having heard that this Son of David was a healer too, he would bet on that like it were a winning 1.6 billion dollar lottery ticket.
Martin Luther often said that faith comes by hearing. What did Bart hear? How did he parse the fake news from the real deal? He heard selfless authority in the words about and from Jesus. That’s how! Before even seeing again, Bart called Jesus “My teacher,” “My Rabbi.” He learned from afar already, from Jesus’ selfless authority. Already Bart had entrusted himself to Jesus! Seems to me that a lot of sighted people are more blind than was Bart; he had “seen” and committed to truth already before his physical sight was restored. And then, then!, after Jesus had healed him and told him to go, Bart got up and went his way, which was to follow Jesus “on the way.” “On the way” was toward suffering, toward the cross, toward death where God himself would die not for but by humanity’s sins. But by following Jesus toward the cross, then beyond, so we infer, Bart came to know genuine fullness of life. By hearing, Bart came to trust and fully live in the one person in whom any can trust and truly live.
Whom and what are you hearing these days? I mean, to whom and what are you giving your ultimate trust? What person or persons and what thing or things are most influencing your life? Are you getting courage and zest for life even as challenge and suffering persist? Again, in whom or what are you putting your trust above all other things? Is your trust in the economy, no matter what price otherwise is being paid for it? How’s that been this past week? Is your trust in politics, color blind to all but red or blue, such that you believe God will vote for your candidates? Should God, rabbis and mohels pack heat during a bris? Should pastors ask the NRA to assist at baptisms? Should Jesus have told Peter to use his sword more, instead of sheathing it?
This week I had dinner with a Catholic priest, a dear friend of mine for almost 40 years. We spoke of the abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church. He shared how, after the Pennsylvania revelations of massive abuse, he actually said out loud to his very large parish that he understood now why the Reformation was necessary. Dennis had seen and felt and confessed the corruption in the church now which only a reformation could heal, and so he understood implicitly what Luther was up to. Fr. Dennis told them–and me–that Catholics needed again to follow Jesus instead of the politicians, and celebrities. I responded that all the church is in such a moment today because the gospel is being distorted and attacked by evangelical power pretenders to the right while healthy spirituality is so attacked from the left. And all the church now looks so very much to be in the dangerous position of being swallowed as it was in 1938.
Yesterday may look like our nation’s Kristallnacht and today we observe an anniversary that we cannot take for granted. Will we continue our tradition’s message of Reformation for both church and public life? Will we hear rightly and gladly when Jesus himself walks by and even stands directly before us? Will we take our cues from what we hear from him, so that we can finally or perhaps even once again see rightly? Will we respond like Not- Really-Blind-Bartimaeus and start a reformation movement in which following Jesus and therefore healing and peacemaking and caring for margin people are first-order business? A movement in which hope floats because we’re no longer concerned about securing our own lives because Jesus Christ has already done that for us, leaving us to the easier and more important work of loving each other and God’s world as a discipline more than a feeling? A movement, a church, a blessing people, who will not let the hateful others make us hate them so to extend their perverse agenda? Remember this: we are called to love, not hate. We are commanded by God to exercise long-suffering and speak words of blessing along with acts of healing bodies, emotions, and spirits. Having truly heard this, this is the only way we Blind Barts will change God’s world for the better. And here is a happy postscript to it all. Our call to love others doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to like them.
So today let’s leap like Barts from our pews to sing and serve, as we will with holy bread and wine, body and blood. Here is bread and body enough for everyone in the world, haters included. Here is wine and blood enough to forgive everyone, including ourselves, “because Jesus.” Someday the haters may even invite us to pat their backs. And where there is hope, there can be laughter.
Duane Larson Christ the King Lutheran Church Houston, TX October 28, 2018