NAILED IT // Sara Wolbrecht // October 25, 2015 // Mark 10:46-52
The connections between Jesus, Martin Luther, and Oprah Winfrey. Also! Why the Protestant Reformation continues today – and how we’re a part of it.
How do you define belief? What does it mean? How do we do it? Turn to someone…
We’ll come back to some definitions of belief later – so hang on to that. But, I wonder, did you hear the word “Belief” in the news at all this week? About something that was going on. It is the name of a seven-part series that aired on OWN. That’s right, The Oprah Winfrey Network. Did you hear about it? Did you watch it? I did not watch it because we only have an antenna for cable, which does not access channel 220, but I have read a bit about it and heard some good chatter.
And I found it fascinating that this particular week, the last week of October, was the week that the Belief series aired. And I will tell you why this is so fascinating in just a few minutes.
To get us there, we’re going to take it back, take it waaaay back to just shy of 2000 years ago. To the Middle East, to this rabbi named Jesus, who we have been reading about since April in the gospel of Mark, one of the four biographies of Jesus. Looking at how Jesus shows us this life that is available to us, a pattern for us to own and embody. Mark’s particular angle on Jesus is told fast-paced, succinct, brief. No fluff. If Mark says it, we know it’s important.
And tonight, we read the end of chapter 10, which interestingly, the very next thing after this, is what we read on Palm Sunday. Jesus, getting his donkey, and heading into Jerusalem, one week before his death, to the shouts of Hosanna! And so what we read tonight is the last piece that Mark includes before everything heads to Jerusalem and the cross. This, is the last word, this is something important that Mark names for us before all of that.
So what is so important that we read it tonight? Jesus heads to Jericho with is disciples. As they leave the city, there is the usual large crowd, and among the crowd, someone cries out to Jesus. Who is it? And what happens? Let’s see:
Mark 10:46-52 - Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”
So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.
The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”
“Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.
Here we meet Blind Bartimaeus. So, there was a little in here about belief. Did you catch it? Jesus says… “Go, your faith has healed you.”
We have actually heard Jesus say this a few times already in Mark’s gospel. When after healing someone, Jesus says, Go, your faith has healed you, saved you, made you well.
The Greek there, sozo, translates as both to save and to heal, because at that time, in that culture, there wasn’t the separating of physical healing from spiritual salvation – they were two dynamics of the same event. Which is important for us to remember.
Yet as we hear Jesus say this, we may just read right through and think nothing of it. Or you may, like me, at first listen, kind of bristle at it, because it almost sounds like Jesus is making faith about a transaction. You had enough faith, and so I gave healing to you. Or even: you have faith, therefore you are saved. Do you have that kind of a response? Where it stirs up questions in you? But we know that reading it THAT way doesn’t align with everything else that Jesus does – where it is very much not about a transaction, but about grace and generosity and inclusion.
So what’s going on here? As always, whenever we read the bible, and particularly when something strikes us as curious, we call to mind the great teaching of the Transformers, who taught us, there is always: more than meets the eye.
Here’s a key to this passage. It’s helpful to think of faith as a channel, like a radio station. Faith, though itself powerless, it doesn’t make a quid pro quo transaction possible, but it does provide an opening, the channel through which Jesus’ power can work. Jesus is not just doing magic tricks by some secret power for amazed and uninvolved people to be wowed by. He is not a magician, he is God’s son, the one through whom the living God is remaking Israel, all people, the world. And faith is that first sign of God’s remaking, that renewal, that new life. Jesus steps into the places where someone is tuned in to the right station, the channel has been opened up, where faith is flowing, where there is willingness to participate, and in that way, faith makes it happen, in that Jesus’ power can flow, is available to the one who is seeking it. Does that make sense? That’s how faith works.
And this, as we have seen, is freaking people out. Right? In Mark’s gospel, people don’t like it because it is messing with the system.
At that time, in that culture, God was supposed to be accessible only in the temple – in the designated, high holy places and spaces – THAT is where God is supposed to be. That’s where “faith” should matter. God was supposed be accessible through following the religious rules and laws and living righteously – that is where God is supposed to be. God was supposed to be with those who have all the signs of “blessings” – lots of wealth, good health, living the right kind of life and having it all together – THAT is where God was supposed to be. God was only supposed to be in those predictable places, and through predictable means. Faith – if we’re to talk about what faith is – faith in God was confidently mediated through controlled systems managed by the hierarchy of the temple.
And as we have seen throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus is saying: nope. That’s not the way it is – faith is a living, breathing, relational reality, that ALL people have access to. Anywhere, on the ground and in the places where people live their lives. Faith is personal, as Jesus again and again enters into the specific, deep needs and longings of the individuals he talks with. That’s where they encounter the Kingdom of God. Anyone can – especially (as we’ve seen) the broken, the lost, the outcast, children, lepers, the poor, the forgotten.
This final word from Mark before Jesus heads to the cross points us again to the amazingly generous reality that God’s Kingdom is available for all – and breaks in at those very places where there is faith.
Which is in this place, where a blind man named Bartimaeus has sat begging for years, with his cloak spread beneath him to catch any coins thrown his way. In this place where he casts aside that cloak as a sign of casting away that life of begging. In this place where the crowd tries to discourage him and shush him. In this place where he persists because even in his blindness he sees Jesus for who he is as he calls him son of David. In this place, here on the road, on the ground of everyday life, Jesus is found, accessed, and brings the Kingdom of God in this place where there is faith.
We’ll say more in a few minutes about our friend Bartimaeus, but first let us leave Barti for a moment and fast-forward almost 1500 years to 1517 in Wittenberg, Germany. October 31, 1517 to be exact. The day that Martin Luther, a Augustine monk, infamously did what? Nailed it.
The last Sunday of October is always Reformation Sunday a day on which Protestants (non-Roman Catholic Christians) all over the world remember good ol’ Marty. And today, we’re remembering him too.
Because, what Martin Luther was attempting to do, echoes with these themes we’ve noticed about Jesus’ encounter with Bartimaeus. Martin Luther was a Catholic monk. He didn’t show up and say, Hi, I’m Lutheran and you should join my new church! He was working to reform the church that he loved, standing up for, naming, the corrupt things he saw in the practices of the church that were not aligning with the gospel, with the Kingdom of God.
For Marty, too, like what Jesus is doing in Mark’s gospel, he noticed that all the good church folks (the priests, bishops, the Pope) were trying to control and even mediate access to God (much like the Pharisees and the Emperor in Jesus’ day). Two of his primary concerns were first, the selling of indulgences. Are you familiar with indulgences? Literally, buying access to heaven with your money – Here’s some cash to save my soul. And you’d essentially get a little, “get out of hell free card.” You could also save your loved ones who had died – with three easy installments of $59.99. Pretty crazy stuff –again, it was a practice by those in power trying to control access to God (and frankly, to get cash – which is so so so similar to the temple system of Jesus’ day). Keep faith as something contained in designated places and practices.
And second for Luther, he stood up for the people having access to the Bible. The Church in Rome, led by the Pope, they had always thought that they, the educated and holy ones, should be the only ones who can read the bible. And so all the bibles were in Latin. But Luther translated the bible into German, the vernacular of his people, which joined the efforts of John Wycliffe and others. And the Pope was trying to hunt down people like these guys who were making the word of God accessible to all. And it was dangerous stuff. In 1517, the same year of the 95 Theses, seven people were burned at the stake for the crime of teaching their children the Lord’s Prayer in English instead of Latin.
So Luther, again, did what anybody would do to make a public statement, to voice his concerns. He wrote out his thoughts, and he took them on October 31st to the place in town where people posted things. The front doors of the church, which served as a bulletin board of sorts, the place where information was made public. Announcements. As Jason said at the beginning of the service e- Luther harnessed the technology of his day to spread the message he wanted the world to hear. And thanks to the printing press that had been invented just 50 years prior, the 95 Theses essentially went viral – and regular people were able to have bibles in their hands for the first time.
Before the Protestant Reformation, all that people had heard was through the interpretation of their religious leaders. Never was faith something present in their hands and in their everyday lives. It wasn’t something they could take personal initiative to engage in. God was in designated cathedrals and chapels and churches, and in the controlled interpretations of priests and leaders, predictable and manageable. … But what Luther and so many others did was dangerous work, because when people start rising up, like Bartimaeus, trying to get to Jesus themselves, trying to encounter God on the road, in everyday life, you can’t control what God is going to do. And people in power generally don’t like that, because what if God does something surprising? The Protestant Reformation brought about this liberation of the word of God, as people began to essentially “get closer” to Jesus as they began to wrestle with what the Bible says and what they believe and what it means – and it did get messy.
And for me, I grew up Lutheran, and then explored a lot of other Christian denominations and non-denominations and came back and chose Lutheran theology as an adult. And I’m pretty stoked that at its heart, the Protestant Reformation, was an effort to make faith accessible, Jesus accessible, the life of God accessible, on the ground, for all. Was there a need for reformation of the church at the time? Absolutely. Does that reform need to continue today?
Well, I think Oprah Winfrey might have the answer for us. Just to be clear, the point of this sermon is not that Oprah is on the same level as Jesus and Martin Luther. Got it? But what is fascinating, again, is that in this final week of October, the week when we remember the Protestant Reformation that began on October 31, 1517, this week is the week that the Belief series is aired.
So if someone was sculpting a series on faith, belief, what might you expect that to be like? Maybe a sort of world religions course that teaches the great global faiths by focusing on religious leaders, institutions, dogma or customary religious practices and rituals. I would plan it to look like that. Well, I have the two minute trailer for the Belief series, and I want you to notice with me, whether this “course” looks like that, or how else you would describe the approach…
Belief Series Trailer (VIDEO) https://vimeo.com/112939649
What do you notice? Any surprises? I found it surprising – and beautiful. The series has been described this way: Belief explores humankind’s ongoing search to connect with something greater than ourselves, witnessing some of the world’s most fascinating beliefs through the eyes of the believer. Journeying to the far reaches of the world, and inside places cameras have rarely been, the real stars of this special are the seven billion people here on earth whose ability to believe in things they can not see, touch or smell, provides comfort, healing and a sense of purpose.
You see, even 50 years ago, not that long ago, a series like this never would have dared to look at faith through the eyes of the believers. Because: ultimate value was placed on religious authorities – who would want to hear from a bunch of regular people? But we are living in an unprecedented time of faith and belief.
One theologian, Diane Butler Bass, in an article she wrote this week on the Washington Post about Oprah’s Belief series, she described our current context as living through a period of intense spiritual democratization. Across the planet, people are taking responsibility for their own versions of meaning and, in the process, are remaking faith in ways that are more inclusive, more personal, more connected to the natural world and more attentive to their community.
Diane Butler Bass describes, too, how this is a shift from a top down hierarchical structure to one that is personally motivated and driven, and it is even shifting how we define what belief is. (Bring back to mind what you came up with for defining what belief is). She says: “The shift toward spiritual democracy is changing the actual nature of belief. For the past few centuries, the word “belief” has, in English at least, become shorthand for “opinion about.”
(I think most of us would define belief as “opinion about” something).
“With the move toward personal engagement with faith, the do-it-yourself revolution of religion, the word “belief” is returning to an older connotation of the word. Before “belief” came to mean “opinion,” it typically referred to devotion or trust. It was an experiential word, and not a philosophical one, that indicated what a “believer” held dear or loved. “Belief” was a disposition of the heart.” (www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/10/18/oprahs-new-belief-series-shows-how-dramatically-the-nature-of-faith-is-shifting/).
My friends, here is why all of this matters…Do you see these connections from Bartimaeus, to Martin Luther, to this movement today of belief returning to a disposition of the heart? In all of these places and signs, we see that God desires for us to be with him in the everyday, real, on the ground places of our lives – and we see in Bartimaeus, Luther, and what’s happening in our world – that we sure do desire this, too.
My friends, here is how we can begin respond to this today: You see, Mark, includes Bartimaeus as the final piece before Jesus heads to the cross, because we, too, are Bartimaeus. We are met by God in our own brokenness, and blindness and stuckness. We are be met in our deepest longings, and fears and frustrations. We are met in our own willingness to tune in and open our hearts in devotion and trust to the channel of faith, and there we are met with hope, and liberation, possibility and grace – for Jesus asks, us, TODAY and everyday: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Leave on screen until the end). My friends, imagining Jesus in your face, gently asking this question, how would you respond? – what is that place of need, of longing, that place hunger for Reformation in you today? Maybe you echo Bartimaeus: Oh, Rabbi, I want to see – I want to see myself, see my family, see you, see this world differently than I see it now. Maybe consider: what is the thing that has been hard for you this week? What can Jesus do for you about that very real, on the ground thing in your life? What is one thing that you would say in response to Jesus’ question?
And we don’t stop there. It is not only a personal, inward question that we ask. It is also a question we ask as we turn outward and look at our church and our world. For it is this question – what do you want me to do for you? – that Martin Luther responded to as he nailed his 95 Theses. With an aching heart Luther was asking: God, that you come close to your people, and reform your church to be the church you want it to be in the world.
And it is the question that we ask of our church and our world today – on this Reformation Sunday. For yes, reformation absolutely continues today. Of ourselves and our church – for this is the very stuff that Jesus is in the business of doing. We are always people of change, of transformation, of growing and becoming, and being imperfect work-in-progress people. And we find ways together, to listen and name and move into fresh ways of being who we are – individually, yes, and as a community here at Salt House and in the world.
And so the second question we ask together today, is this: what is the word that our church needs to hear? What would we have Jesus do for the wider church in the world today? Where might we be off the mark from what God wants to do in us and the world?
We’re going to have a few minutes to think about these two questions, and while we do it, we’ll sing the hymn that good ol’ Martin Luther is known for – A Mighty Fortress is Our God. Then after we sing, we’ll have some space to listen, to pray, to write down and speak our responses as Jesus asks us these two questions – what do you want me to do for you? What do you want me to do for the church?
So sit with them as we sing.
Song of Response: A Mighty Fortress
You see, that church door from Wittenberg, Germany still exists. We actually flew the original door here to have in worship with us today. Just kidding. Actually Jason made that door for us. And we put it here to make a point. And the point is that the Wittenberg church door still does exist, in that we still need to be the praying, reforming, vocal people of God that Luther was in his day. People who courageously, and with grace and tenderness, speak and act to make room for people to come to the table and encounter God. Engaging in this movement we see in our world today, where faith is an experience of the heart. To keep reforming the church so that all the things that get in the way from that heart-experience of God are moved out of the way.
And really, we don’t use this door or our church front doors to post public information anymore. But we do have the ability to harness the technology of our day. Luther used to talk about how the word of God is written on our hearts and our hands, as we use our hearts and hands in the world. And this is most certainly true, that God places the Word in our hearts and on our hands, whether in person, in tweets, or on Facebook and Instagram.
And so we’re mindful of the real, out loud ways in which we can live our faith today – as we are people who hunger for connection – with God, with others. And it begins by being people who listen and pay attention to our lives and to what God is saying to us. And today we are responding to Jesus’ question of us: Jesus asks you: What do you want me to do for you?
1. What God’s word of grace for you today?
(In your personal, deep place of longing)
2. What is God’s word of grace, your prayer, for the church today?
(Who Salt House could be or the wider Christian church in the world).
It could be a word, a phrase, a metaphor, a haiku. And we have paper and pens for us to use. To write, to name. I invite you to answer Jesus’ question for you today. And maybe you have the energy to name that personal place of reform and grace that you need from God today – and that’s it. That’s ok. Maybe you being drawn out of yourself and can only see that word for Salt House or the church at large. That’s ok. Or maybe you’ll find that the reform you long to see in yourself and the church are the same thing.
After you’ve written you can do two things. First. Share your words with us. I the microphone. Just read what you wrote or say it in your own words. Bravely and imperfectly sharing what you hear God saying and your heart saying. Second, you can nail that sucker to the door. (You can do one or the other or both). And in the speaking and the nailing, we are prophetic people of prayer and hope and reform. Practicing together the ways of change. The hammers and nails will be there.
Our world, our church will always need the courageous work of reformers, to see the new, fresh possibilities for what the church can be. And today, we practice being those people. There are no right answers, no wrong answers, just the beautiful brave messiness of listening and dreaming together. So let us do that now.