It was the Fourth of July weekend, and it was the first sermon I ever preached. I was doing a summer of Clinical Pastoral Education, which is the official terminology for learning how to be a chaplain, at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, and I was scheduled to preach at the chapel’s interfaith service as part of the requirements for this unit of chaplaincy. I was very nervous on many levels. First, there was the fact that I was still part of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and as a woman, I really wasn’t supposed to be doing this. Although I did not have a problem with women preaching and being pastors, I was still rostered as a deaconess in the LCMS, and I didn’t want anyone to find out what I was doing. My parents knew, and I had sworn them to secrecy, but in today’s day and age, there are always ways of finding out. Another reason I was nervous had to do with the fact that this was supposed to be an interfaith service: how was I supposed to remain true to who I was as a Christian, and yet be respectful of people of other faiths who might be there? Was that possible, and if so, was I able to do it? Finally, I was just plain nervous because I had never done this before. Would my words be what the people who came needed to hear? Would I be any good at this whole preaching thing? I just didn’t know. What I remember about the event itself was that there were only 2 or 3 people in attendance, and that the worship service seemed to go well. Again, as part of the requirements of the class, I was being videotaped, and later that week, my classmates and supervisor would look at the tape and give constructive criticism. After we watched the videotape, one of my classmates said, “Tonya has found her voice.” I remember being confused at first: had my voice been missing? I didn’t recall being prevented from speaking, per se. But as I looked back on my time in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, I began to realize that, as a woman, my voice had, in fact, not been listened to. And in my journey into the ordained ministry in the ELCA, I was beginning to find out who God had called me to be, and what my voice had to say.
In today’s Scripture, Bartimaeus has found his voice. A blind beggar, he probably sat in Jericho from day to day, begging for people to help him. And, like we do with our homeless people today, the people of Jericho would mostly walk by him, pretending not to see him and pretending not to hear his cries. If Bartimaeus was lucky, maybe one or two people would feel pity on him and toss a coin or a scrap of bread in his direction. But for the most part, he probably felt invisible and unheard, wondering if he was even a person, wondering why he continued to do this day after day, only knowing that he had to survive. So when Bartimaeus heard the crowds go by, and heard someone say that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he knew that he had to try one more time to be heard. So he began to shout out, calling Jesus the Son of David, and pleading for mercy.
Last week, we saw how the disciples, even though Jesus had told them over and over again what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem, still didn’t get it. We saw how, when Jesus asked James and John what they wanted him to do for them, they requested what they thought would be places of honor at Jesus’ right and left hand. We heard how Jesus told them, again, that being first in the kingdom of God meant being the slave of all. Today we hear how a man who is blind, who has not been part of Jesus’ group of disciples, knows who Jesus is, and knows that Jesus is the Son of David, the Messiah. How Bartimaeus knew this when the disciples didn’t, even after repeated instruction, is a mystery. We can only attribute this to the working of the Holy Spirit. And that Holy Spirit gave Bartimaeus the faith to speak out, to shout out the truth of who Jesus is, and to plead for nothing more than to regain his physical sight. And Jesus sends Bartimaeus away with no more than the word, “Go, your faith has made you well.” This faith given to Bartimaeus by the Holy Spirit enabled Bartimaeus to recognize who Jesus was, and instead of going away, he follows Jesus, with the rest of the crowd, to Jerusalem.
This text is a good text for today, when we commemorate the beginning of the Reformation of the church 498 years ago in the province of Saxony, a backwater of the Holy Roman Empire. On October 31, 1517, a German monk and professor named Martin Luther posted 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. (I found out at Luther Lectures this week that he didn’t use a hammer and nail, but posted these theses on the door with wax—which doesn’t make for nearly as dramatic a scene in movies as we might like!) Luther didn’t know that what he was doing would cause such waves in the church and in his society. He was simply speaking out against the practice of indulgences, which he felt was preventing people from feeling true sorrow for their sins and thus repenting of them. He was raising his voice to speak the truth in the way that was accepted practice at that time. Over the years, many would sternly order him to be quiet, just as the crowd ordered Bartimaeus to be quiet when he began calling out after Jesus. But Luther, like Bartimaeus, would not remain quiet. Instead, he would raise his voice and speak the truth that faith, given by the Holy Spirit and not as a result of anything that we do, is what makes us well and is what saves us.
How are we raising our voices today and speaking the truth about who Jesus is? How are we raising our voices today and speaking the truth that Martin Luther spoke, that faith alone is what saves us and it is nothing that we do? For all of Luther’s boldness in speaking what he knew to be the truth, we Lutherans tend not to be so good at talking to other people about this. When I went to Luther Lectures in Chico this week, the professor who taught us, Timothy Wengert, said that the only command that Lutherans never break is when Jesus tells whoever he has just healed to not tell anyone about it. Think about this: if Jesus were to heal one of us Lutherans today in the same miraculous fashion that he healed Bartimaeus, and then he were to tell us, “Don’t tell anyone about this,” we, as Lutherans, would say, “OK, Jesus, you got it,” instead of breaking the rule, like so many of those he healed did, and telling everyone. Maybe some of us would tell, but our reputation as Lutherans is not to talk to other people about the great things that Jesus has done for us.
Friends, this should not be so among us. We have a great treasure passed down to us by Luther and the other Reformers. Where the world says, and where even some of our brother and sister Christians say, we have to do something to get right with God, we say that God, through Jesus Christ, has already done everything for us. Where others say that we have to make a decision for Christ, we say that, through our baptism, the Holy Spirit has come down and has saved us, claiming us as members of God’s family and creating saving faith within us—there is nothing that we need do. Where some say that Christianity is about striving to be good people, we as Lutheran Christians say that Christianity is about faith that, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are already reconciled with God. That is the good news, and we should be working to find our voice and to shout this out to the world, not to be “quiet Lutherans” and not tell anyone.
The story of Bartimaeus is more than a healing story; it is a call story. Once Bartimaeus regains his physical sight, he follows Jesus on the way to Jerusalem. We, too, are called to follow Jesus on the way to Jerusalem: not to the glory that James and John expected, but the lonely road to the cross, where we see with clear eyes who Jesus is and how he redeems us: by giving himself up to death on the cross. I wonder if Bartimaeus was standing in the crowd that day, watching Jesus die, and I wonder if he could still point to Jesus and cry out that this was the Son of David, or if his faith in Jesus was shaken. Martin Luther, I found out this week, considered himself in the same light as those disciples such as Bartimaeus and John the Baptist: pointing to Jesus Christ and what he has done for us. This is the legacy that Luther and all of the other Christian saints throughout the centuries have passed down to us: the call to tell others who Jesus is, what he has done for us, and that there is nothing that we need to do to receive this gift of faith. And now that faith, given to us by the Holy Spirit, will move us out into the world to tell all whom we meet the good news of how much Jesus has already done for us. Amen.