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, “My teacher, let me see again.”
“Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road. Mark 10:46-52
Blind Bartimaeus is the one, ironically, who got it! The sightless man is the one who saw who Jesus was. He knew that the man from Nazareth wasn’t just a gifted healer. Twice, in this short story, he cries out to Jesus as “Son of David.” Every good Jew knew that the long-awaited Messiah was to come from the lineage of David. So the man with the greatest handicap in town, a guy who was regularly sidelined by his superiors, shouted to get Jesus’ attention. He begged for MERCY.
Many times folks with handicapping conditions are viewed as an embarrassment to the townsfolk. The crowds who had come to catch a glimpse of this itinerant preacher tried to shut Bartimaeus down. “SHHHH!” But the stakes were too high so he kept yelling. When Jesus asked for him, the language of the text tells us of Bart’s excitement: “So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.” Few of us spring up even in the best of conditions! Bartimaeus acted from the heart. I imagine Jesus touching him to let him know that they were face-to-face. Jesus asked a simple question of the man who had so fervently sought to have an audience with Him: “What do you want me to do for you?” The answer came from the depths of his being, a prayer he must have repeated more times than he could remember. But now he was being asked to speak that prayer out loud—to the One he believed to be the Messiah. “My teacher, let me see again.” I love the tenderness in this response. “MY teacher.” Bartimaeus was not going to be cowed by the crowd into assuming that he wasn’t worthy of Christ’s attention. He belonged to Jesus as much as anyone. His faith in Jesus’ healing powers was apparent. In this encounter old Bart was perhaps the only one who truly worshiped Jesus. He already saw better than most. But Jesus gave him back his sight—the ability to take in the beauty of his world again. Notice what he did with his reclaimed vision? He followed Jesus on the way.
I can only imagine the conversations around dinner tables that night in Jericho!
Today is the 501st anniversary of Luther’s protest against the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church which launched the Church into The Reformation. It’s good for us to remember those forebears in the faith who responded to the radical call to discipleship. In sacrificial ways they cried out to Jesus for mercy and followed in the Way of Christ no matter the cost. We sit peacefully in our sanctuaries today because of their courageous response to Jesus’ invitation, “Follow Me.”
Just four days into our month-long trip in Europe this past summer, we ran into Reformation history in Paris. Our hotel was on Rue des Ecoles, meaning Street of Schools. We learned that we were walking along avenues where John Calvin had lived. My sabbatical summer was to be an immersion in my roots of DNA and Spirit. We hit up against our spiritual roots early in the trip and often! John Calvin was born in France in 1509. His dad had worked his way up from the family fishing industry and worked for the Bishop. All three of his sons were to be educated as Catholic Priests. John’s academic prowess was obvious from early on so his father sent him to Paris for an education. But these were times of great ferment and John was drawn into the reforming movement that challenged the theology and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. His challenges to the Church became an embarrassment to his father as an employee of the Bishop so his father rerouted him to Law School. He not only absorbed his legal texts but also got involved in radical discussions about theology. He learned Koine Greek which would help him later to read and translate the New Testament. After his father’s death at age 22 (his mother had died when he was young) Calvin found his way back to Paris where he became deeply involved in the Reformation movement. He was believed to be the writer of a speech delivered by a faculty member which urged folks to resist the Catholic Church with these words: “I beg of you, who are here present, not to tolerate any longer these heresies and abuses.” The King of France and church officials were furious. So on November 2, 1533 at the age of 24, John Calvin lowered himself from a window of the Royal College, with a lifeline of bed sheets knotted together. Many of his colleagues, dear friends really, did not escape the wrath of church officials. They were burned at the stake for their heresy. This became a radicalizing moment for young John when he understood the intensity of the battle he was fighting. With even greater conviction, he carried the torch of faith forward on behalf of his murdered brothers.
John fled his homeland of France, heading for Strasbourg, a free city amidst the religious turmoil. But, on the way, he was sidelined because of a battle. (Did you ever have to take a detour because of a battle?!?) He took refuge in Geneva, thinking he would stay a night or two. But his reputation preceded him and he was drafted into the movement vigorously afoot in Geneva to work against the Roman Catholic Church. A trip inconvenience apparently was a Divine Appointment! He made it to Strasbourg several years later for a three-year stint, where he married a widow with two children. But the last 20 years of his life and career were spent in Geneva where he pastored a congregation while producing wildly for the Reformation movement. He preached 150 sermons a year. He wrote commentaries on 31 different books of the Bible while maintaining a full lecture schedule. He worked to protect the institution of family by urging the legal establishment of a curfew. This would cut down on drinking and absentee husbands. He labored to the detriment of his health to foster unity within a very chaotic and divided Church. He loved music and believed that singing the scriptures was one of the best ways to settle those sacred texts within our hearts. He hired a gifted musician to set all 150 Psalms to music and this Psalter became a central part of Protestant worship. We still have a copy of Garrett’s grandfather’s psalter that he used as a minister in the Christian Reformed Church, which claims Calvin as their denominational forebear.
Calvin insisted that we are shaped for “doxology”, for praise of our Creator. In his commentary on Psalm 117 he stated, “If on earth such praise of God does not come to pass, if God does not preserve His church to this end, then the whole order of nature will be thrown into confusion and creation will be annihilated when there is no people to call upon God.” So, while drastically changing the shape of the Church because of his beliefs, Calvin tried to live in faithful obedience to the radical call Christ placed upon him. At his insistence, when he died in 1564, he was buried in an unmarked grave to prevent mourners from wasting their energy worshiping him rather than his Maker.
And you thought navigating your life was challenging!!
Toward the end of my Nourishing Roots journey in Europe this summer I met up with another reformer, John Knox. On the Royal Mile of the Old Town of Edinburgh, a striking house stands out from the others: House in the Netherbow. It is the oldest home still standing and provided lodging for two men who stood on opposite sides of the Catholic/Protestant divide.
James Mossman was a goldsmith who made lovely jewelry for the royals of Scotland. He and his wife lived in this home from 1558 to 1572. They enjoyed a lavish life of material wealth and social esteem. But there are hints in the design of the home that assure us that security was a concern. A narrow staircase that winds between the floors has a seventh stair that is spaced differently than the others. The plan was that intruders, not expecting the difference in stair height, would trip on the stair and give away their presence. Not quite the security system of our day, it underscores that life was tense and fraught with danger! Mossman was a devout Catholic, allegiant to Mary, Queen of Scots. As the Protestant Reformers pressed down upon the city of Edinburgh, the jeweler and others who were branded “The Queen’s Men” holed up in the Edinburgh castle. They managed to hold their enemies at bay for three years. Eventually those fighting on the Protestant side overtook them and they were found guilty of treason. Stripped of all their worldly good, including Mossman’s lovely home, the men who had been loyal to their Queen were hanged, their heads posted on the castle wall.
Meanwhile, John Knox, who was born near Edinburgh, had been trained as a priest. He was a fiery orator who became a believer in the need for reform in his Church. He held his ground powerfully in public debates even against Queen Mary. This forced him to flee from his homeland for a time, his passion for reform putting him in mortal danger. He was held by the French Navy as a prisoner until 1549. Upon release, he found his way to the free city of Geneva, where he overlapped with Calvin, also in exile. Knox led an English-speaking congregation while Calvin pastored one that spoke French. In 1557 they produced an English translation of the Bible that could be used by laity. They used a more readable font than was typically used for printing religious texts. They used language that was more readily understood by common folks. It was a copy of this Geneva Bible that was carried across the ocean on the Mayflower to give the first North American colonists a Bible to read and follow.
Once the Protestants prevailed in Scotland, Knox was able to return home. He preached powerfully at St. Giles Cathedral which continues to dominate the striking city-scape of the Royal Mile. It was still a perilous time in which “smouldering discontents were set ablaze.” We can’t imagine the faith required to take a stand for a reformed interpretation of the Christian faith. Knox was nearing the end of his life and needed a place to live that was near the church. So he took up residence in the abandoned House in the Netherbow. There were two printing presses in operation in the basement of the home, mass-producing materials for The Church of Scotland, now Protestant instead of Catholic. The inscription over the door of the home, chosen by James Mossman and his bride as they moved into the home fourteen years earlier, was “Love God above all and your neighbor as yourself.” The two men who lived there were separated by their interpretation of the faith. But both certainly believed that they were honoring this Biblical commandment to love God and neighbor fully. Just three months after moving into the jeweler’s home, John Knox died, leaving as his legacy the establishment of what would become the Presbyterian denomination.
These were the men who saw beyond the features of this earthly world. They recognized Christ and, when He asked them what they wanted of Him, their request was humble. Help me to see you more clearly and I will follow in your Way. Like Bartimaeus, they didn’t waste time for themselves when Jesus showed up in miraculous ways. They hit the road, putting their very lives at risk, witnessing friends murdered for holding the same faith convictions that they did. They were exiled from their homelands but established “family” in the churches they served, churches that housed them at unexpected detours on the way.
The prophet Jeremiah ministered to a defeated people who had been exiled from their homeland and who were sure that God had abandoned them. In a passage from chapter 31 he speaks tenderly to his discouraged people. As a messenger for God he assured them that God would bring them home. It’s quite an image painted in our minds of the stream of refugees who would be brought back to their hometowns: the blind and the lame, those with the joy of anticipating a new baby and those actively delivering children who now had hope of a restored life. God had not forgotten them after all. They would soon be home.
As we stream into worship in our churches today, sipping our lattes and mentally scrolling through our endless to-do lists that assault us the minute we leave the church, we could easily forget the price that has been paid by our spiritual fathers and mothers. Countless martyrs lost their lives for speaking boldly about the changes they believed needed to be made to honor Christ as the Head of the Church. It makes me wonder, if I were to meet up with Christ this afternoon, what my answer would be if He asked me, “What do you want me to do for you?” Would I see beyond this earthly life to ask for the right gifts? Would I fix my gaze on Christ no matter the cost? I hope so. I pray so.