October 26, 2015
Reformation Sunday, Bishop Patricia Lull
Grace and peace to you from God the Father, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Can you imagine leaving home in the morning and by nightfall your life has been so transformed — in a positive and life-giving way — that you are never the same again? In today’s Gospel text we meet Bartimaeus. His life is an example of that kind of transformation. He’s the beggar at the side of the road. He’s the man relegated to a life of poverty in a society that was good at keeping people in their place. And then everything changes when he cries out to Jesus, begging not for coins but for God’s mercy.
It’s no surprise that there were beggars at the side of the Jericho road. It was the ancient pilgrim route to Jerusalem and Jewish pilgrims on their way to the Holy City were especially inclined to throw alms to the poor and the needy, for their tradition instructed that they were to care for the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the alien in the land.
But the crowd in Mark’s Gospel is not so kind to Bartimaeus. When he cries out to Jesus those around him tell the beggar to shut up. After all, why would Jesus — the prophet and teacher — care about one destined in life to be no more than a beggar? We know that Bartimaeus was blind, but he was absolutely gifted at ignoring public opinion. He does not keep quiet but cries out all the more. And Jesus, we are told, hears his cries and calls for the man to come to him.
What a fitting text this is for Reformation Sunday. The Reformation period was a time of massive social transformation. We may readily think of that young university professor and monk – Martin Luther — tacking an invitation for an academic debate to a bulletin board in Wittenberg in October of 1517 as being what the reformation was all about, but there was so much more to this period of change than just doctrinal debates. The Reformation was a major time of upheaval in which the Spirit of God stirred up reform not only within the church but in all aspects of daily life.
The way people worshipped God and thought about the connection between their prayers and their life during the week; regard for God’s presence in all forms of labor and family life; renewal of the creative arts; the development of new structures for public education and government; and the emergence of local identities that respected the language and customs of ordinary people were all aspects of the Reformation we celebrate today. The doctrinal debates mattered, to be sure, but so did the innovations that Luther and other reformers introduced in the way people lived beyond the doors of the church.
Within just a few years of posting the 95 Theses, many were turning to Luther for advice on how to organize community life. One of the key concerns was what to do about the poor, since even in Wittenberg nearly a third of the people had no real means to support themselves. In the years before, the church through its many monasteries and religious orders and the princes with their large estates had owned almost all the land and had provided for the meager care of the poor but now as the winds of the Reformation movement spread, cities and towns needed to address the needs of their neighbors on their own. They wrote to Luther, asking what are we to do?
By 1523 — which was 492 years ago, my friends — Luther was working with the City of Leisnig, which had drafted its own covenant for the Common Chest; those funds we would think of as our local taxes. He commends their efforts to address the basic needs of everyone. Luther insists that there are to be no more beggars but the poor are to be cared for as part of way we live out our Christian faith. Everyone is to have enough food and opportunities to learn trades and skills. [Luther Works, 45:169 ff; Preface to Ordinance of a Common Chest]
That has been our reformation heritage in this county, too. Lutheran immigrants brought many of those same commitments with them when they came to the cities and farmlands of North America. At the end of the 19th century Lutherans created institutions to care for orphans and the aged; established hospitals and schools and colleges. Many of those – places like Lutheran Social Services, Lyndblomsten, Augustana Care, Ecumen, Ebenezer Society, Bethesda Hospital and Augsburg College — continue to be beacons of hope in the Twin Cities.
But now we stand at a new threshold. In the 21st century our neighbors are not faring so well. Too many are hungry. Too many families lack secure and affordable housing. Too many in poverty have to work multiple, low-wage jobs and still cannot enjoy the security of knowing their basic needs will be met from month to month. Too many are like Bartimaeus, stuck at the side of the road, kept in their place in a society that does not look with kindness on those who are little or least. What are we to do?
As daughters and sons of the Reformation, we have inherited this remarkable history of caring for others, especially those who struggle to care for themselves. And that should motivate us to get to work today. Except motivating wide-spread social transformation isn’t that simple. We live in a culture that speaks to us 24/7, saying – look out for yourself. Be dubious of others. Be cautious of strangers and immigrants. How else can we explain the hatred and fear-mongering that has become commonplace in our world?
But at the heart of the Reformation was a very different message. It wasn’t about us at all. Rather, it was a rediscovery of God’s grace and love for us and for all people. Five hundred years ago the Spirit’s biggest surprise was this word that the saving grace of God comes to us as a free gift. And I must say I marvel at much of the 500-year experiment called the Lutheran movement that has been built not upon rules we must keep to be loved by God but upon the lives we may live because we know we are loved and forgiven for Christ’s sake. Most of the world doesn’t buy that. But amazing things happen when even a few believe that it is so.
I love coming to worship, here, at Gloria Dei. I know my work as bishop of this synod is supported by your prayers and your concern for my well being. But so much of what I love at Gloria Dei begins right here at the open font that sits front and center in this sanctuary. As new members join this community today, they remind us that our life in Christ begins right here.
Like Bartimaeus, who threw off his beggar’s cloak and instantly sprang up to come to Jesus when he called him to take heart and to get up, we too have been called into the grace-inspired freedom of our baptism that allows us to craft a contemporary response to our neighbors’ needs.
So let’s have fun. Let’s start new reformation. Let’s do it today. I don’t know exactly what that will look like but I know that the Spirit has the power to call us beyond ourselves and the power to send us into the world to figure out a new way to live together so that no one is permanently stuck at the side of the road. Thanks be to God. AMEN.