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Our Reformation Cry

October 25, 2015

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Reformation Sunday, October 25, 2015. This was also observed by the congregation as Orange Day, part of the United Nations campaign to end violence against women and girls. Mary Degener was our joyful and generous worship leader.


Psalm 34: 1-8, 19-24     Mark 10: 46-52

There are two stories of blind men in the gospel of Mark. The first is the one I just read, about Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, who shouts out “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” Yes, He shouts, because Jesus’ disciples, as well as others in the crowd, are doing their very best to keep Bartimaeus quiet. Silent. Hidden.

Is his need embarrassing? Are the disciples in a hurry? Do they simply judge their own needs more important than this blind man’s? Or is this crowd finally a gathering of people who want to hear what Jesus has to say rather than see a miracle? Perhaps as Bartimaeus was getting louder and louder in order to be heard, the disciples were less and less sure this was the kind of person Jesus needed to meet.

In any case, Bartimaeus’s cries work and Jesus does ask to meet him. “What do you want me to do for you?” he inquires in what I find one of Jesus’ most beautiful sentences. Jesus does not presume to know even this man’s, this blind man’s, needs, but asks Bartimaeus what the content of mercy means for him. “I wish to see” is Bartimaeus’ reply. And we are told, that having seen his faith, Jesus cures him.

Mark says Jesus saw this man’s faith, and unless we want to add to the story by assuming that Jesus has some fantastic ability to look deep within another person’s heart and then to pretend that Jesus was just playing dumb when he asked, “what is it that you want me to do for you,” then as far as I can tell, all that Jesus saw was a blind man willing to be as loud as necessary in order to be brought before Jesus and to say what he needed. That is what constituted the blind man’s faith.

But in the gospel of Mark there is another story about a blind man who asks Jesus to give him the ability to see. In this other story of a man born blind, Jesus picks up a handful of dirt, spits in his hand, makes mud which he applies to the man’s eyes, and then washes him clean. When this man opens his eyes, Jesus asks him what he sees, and the man replies with the words that inspired the song by Johnny Cash, “I see men as tree walking.” In other words, he sees about as well as many of you would if you removed your glasses: it’s a blurry world. So Jesus tries again, and the second time around everything becomes clear(er). I take heart that even Jesus sometimes had to try more than once to get things right. But more importantly, that when we are in need, we can turn to Jesus to touch us again, and again, and again, until we are made right/whole.

Today, the last Sunday of October, is what we recognize as Reformation Sunday, the Sunday nearest to and preceding October 31st, when Martin Luther in 1517 posted his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. “This dramatic event marked the beginning of a movement of reformation in the churches and set forth a spirit of reform that is at the heart of the gospel and the experience of the New Testament church.”[1] Then as now both we, and our faith, are not static, but are challenged to change and grow by God and by our new experiences; to remember that God will come to us again and again and again.

The story of the man touched twice by Jesus is a message not only for individuals, but for the church as well. Like the man born blind, too often the church has simply mimicked the culture and values around it, making it blind to God’s work in our midst.

At one point in our church’s history, the exclusion of women from positions of leadership and moral authority was a given fact, little discussed and often a direct result of faulty biblical and theological scholarship which ascribed to women characteristics of weakness, promiscuity, and limited intellect. But thanks to women who heard God’s call and refused to be silenced (women like those who started their own mission boards in 1860 because their denomination refused to send out single women as a missionary), and after decades of rigorous theological debate, women were ordained deacons in 1906 and elders in 1930. Lest we think the ordination of women positions of elder and deacon was easy, hear what a publication called “The” Presbyterian published in May of 1920: “The question of woman is one of the most pivotal questions in the human race and in the Holy Catholic Church. Error here has caused the collapse of civilizations, and may mean the apostasy of the church.”

In 1956 the General Assembly approved the ordination of women as ministers of Word and Sacrament, and Margaret Towner became the first woman ordained to preach and administer the sacraments in the Presbyterian Church. Throughout the 1970s The Rev. Marion Stickney served this congregation as assistant pastor. And most of you know that the Rev. Peggy Howland, who was a parish associate here for many years, was the twelfth woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church – a story you have heard her tell from this pulpit where you welcomed her again and again. This coming year we will mark the 110th anniversary of women as deacons, the 86th anniversary of women as elders, and the 60th anniversary of women as ministers of word and sacrament. [photo: The Rev. Peggy Howland]


I made a phone call to Barbara Horan this week, and here in our congregation Lillian Bird was the first woman ordained as an elder to serve on the session in 1965. Barbara herself was the fourth woman ordained as an elder this congregation in 1970. Our current church council is two-thirds women.

Let me be clear. It is not just that the Presbyterian Church once held one position on “the woman question” and now we hold another. A relativist would argue that we can make the bible say anything we want, and any belief is as good as any other, that all belief should be respected. I am saying that we came to believe that the beliefs we formerly held were wrong. Wrong not simply because we read our bibles wrong, but wrong because those readings were oppressive, and fundamentally did not recognize that all people have been created by God in God’s image and equally deserving of rights and recognition in the church and in society. Further, we were wrong because we took upon ourselves the sovereignty that belongs only to God and tried to close ourselves off from the light and truth God was bringing to us through these “outsiders,” from those our 1990 Brief Statement of Faith calls “voices long silenced.”

In her book, Permission Granted: Take the Bible into Your Own Hands, Jennifer Grace Bird (no relation to Lillian Bird) explores the history of how the church has used the bible to justify not only the oppression of women, but to justify slavery, the exclusion of people who were divorced from pastoral and congregational leadership. The Presbyterian Church (USA) does welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons who feel called by God to serve as deacons, elders and pastors, but many Christians today still use scripture to deny God’s inclusive love toward the LGBTQ community. Jennifer discerns a disturbing trend – in a society already dealing with tremendous change, our churches increasingly turn to scripture in order to preserve and justify the past, rather than as a way of encountering the living God who loves us and leads us into the future.

The church itself, reformed and always reforming, has stood and stands, in need of being touched again by Jesus.

In recent years, this congregation has sent three overtures for consideration by the larger church at our bi-annual General Assembly. Each of these overtures has challenged the church to listen to “voices long silenced” and to ask of those who have been silenced “what do you want us to do?” We have lifted up the voices of immigrants in our broken immigration system; we added our support for marriage equality within the church – which was affirmed by the General Assembly last year; and we recently listened to the voice of the earth itself (Psalm 19) and advocated the withdrawal our denomination’s (and our congregation’s) investments from the fossil fuel industry.

Reformation is about opening ourselves to the cries of those long silenced, and being willing to have Jesus touch us again, and again, and again, if need be. Reformation also involves crying out until we are heard, and being unafraid to say what it is we need. Reformation Sunday is an opportunity not only to remember our past, but to consider the future, that it may be God’s future.

We are a reformed church, in theory and practice. We are a church always in need of reform. And by God’s grace, we are a church always being reformed.

[1] from Clifton Kirkpatrick’s Reformation Day letter to the Presbyterian Church (2006).

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