Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, March 30, 2014: Fourth Sunday in Lent

Texts: 1 Samuel 16:1-13  +  Psalm 23  +  Ephesians 5:8-14  +  John 9:1-41

If you were here two weeks ago, you’ll remember that I spent a good bit of time in my sermon talking about the backdrop to the Gospel of John, the fact that it’s believed to have been composed near the end of the first century, sixty years or more after the death of Jesus. From what we can put together about that time, the Jesus movement was experiencing conflict as Jewish people who had come to believe and confess that Jesus — whose life, death and resurrection were now facts of history — was the long-awaited messiah. Their confession put them at odds with members of the synagogue community who did not share their faith, and as a result they were being kicked out of their congregation. The disruption was intense and the consequences were devastating. These first century Jews were not living in today’s religious landscape, they couldn’t just join another church with beliefs friendlier to their lived experience down the street. They were being cast out of all they’d known with no assurance that they were being called into something new.

It’s important to understand the story behind the story when reading scripture, so that we can begin to understand the incredible choices each story teller is making to give hope to fearful people, to give courage to a community doing a new thing, to give faith to an assembly gathering outside the boundaries of the known world, a new world, a new creation.

From the start, John’s gospel has been trying to tell us that the world is being made new. “In the beginning,” it says, echoing the words of Genesis, “was the Word…” the familiar proclamation of Christmas morning. After that opening prologue, the very first thing that happens in John’s gospel is an act of testimony, as the Jerusalem establishment heads out to meet John the Baptist across the Jordan where he is baptizing people. They ask him, “who are you?” (John 1:19) and it says, “He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed.”

Imagine what these words would have meant to people who were being cast out of the familiar places of community and meaning because of their own confession, their own testimony. The story begins with a baptism, and a confession that will not be denied

From there the story focuses, understandably, on Jesus — until we get to chapter nine, the long passage we just read together. It begins with another echo of Genesis, one that would require us to know and remember that the first human, formed in the garden at the beginning of time, was named Adam, a pun that functions as a moniker. In Hebrew the word for “earth” is adamah, so the first person, formed from the earth, is called Adam.

580510493_5c828c0454_oJesus comes upon a man blind from birth, someone who has never seen him. This man doesn’t ask to be healed, he doesn’t plead for Jesus to perform a miracle, he’s just living his life. Jesus’ followers notice the man, and use his blindness as an occasion to start a conversation about sin. The man is different, so they want to know what went wrong. Jesus is uninterested in their preoccupation with sin, and responds to them, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5) Again we hear the beginning of this gospel,

“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5);

but also, again, Genesis,

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light” (Gen. 1:1-3).

Then Jesus takes some earth, the stuff we’re made of, and rubs it in the man’s eyes, as if to recreate them, and tells him to go wash in a pool of water, to be baptized as it were, and we’re told that the name of the pool, Siloam, means “sent.”

From that point, a series of remarkable things occur. The very first being that Jesus disappears from this story and the focus shifts from Jesus to the man who has now begun to see the world in a new way, for the first time. In fact, the verses that follow mark Jesus’ longest absence from the story in this gospel. Rather than continuing with the dialogue between Jesus and his disciples, the story follows a series of exchanges between the man with new sight and the temple establishment.

blindYou can imagine that the original audience, the community for whom this gospel was composed, understood immediately what was happening here. Like the man born blind, they’d never seen Jesus. Only heard of him. Maybe they were the children or grandchildren of people who’d been alive when Jesus had walked the earth, and they grew up hearing other families in the synagogue talk about their differences as if they were sins. Maybe they’d lived their whole life among the assembly, but experienced an epiphany, a conversion they never saw coming that changed everything about how they saw the world. Whatever their particular circumstances, I feel certain that these first century Jews knew that when the storytellers talked about the man born blind, they were talking about them.

The next thing that’s remarkable to watch in this story is the creation, before our eyes, of an evangelist. After spending his life being treated like the subject of other people’s speculation, he begins to find his own voice. It’s tentative, at first, he’s no John the Baptist. His testimony develops and is sharpened, like all of ours, in conversation with others.

His first words are simply to assert his existence to people who’d walked by him every day, but never really saw him. Now that he is different, now that he sees the world differently, they can barely recognize him. “Is not this the man who used to sit and beg?” they ask. Just as Jesus’ disciples wanted to talk about this man, not to him, this man’s neighbors were so busy talking about him they barely heard him when he gave his first testimony: “I am the man.”

“I am the man,” is shorthand for so much being said. I am the man Jesus healed. I am the man you used to walk by. I am the woman you talk about, not to. I exist. I am a subject, not an object. I am one of God’s own creations. I have sacred worth. I matter.

Maybe this is your testimony as well, the word God has given you to say as a part of your own healing, and to be part of the way that God heals others. This first testimony seems so small, but is the basis for everything else we have to say: “I am the one God has made.”

His neighbors aren’t so quick to accept what he has to say however, so they finally stop ignoring him only to begin interrogating him. “How were your eyes opened?” In response, the man tells the story of his liberation. At this point he doesn’t try to explain how it happened, or to assign greater meaning to what happened. He simply reports the facts, as he experienced them, from his point of view.

This is the second testimony, the powerful story each of us can tell about the power of God at work in our lives, healing us, freeing us, saving us. These testimonies don’t require us to have all the right answers, or to be ready to defend them. They are powerful because they point to reality. “I used to be blind, now I see.” “I used to be afraid to leave, now I am ready to go.” “I used to drink myself to sleep every night, now I am ten years sober.” “I used to look at my body and hate it, now I can tell that this is a body loved by God.” “I used to think there was something irredeemably wrong with me, now I know I am loved.”

“Then I went and washed and received my sight.” (John 9:11)

Now the man’s neighbors begin to repeat the kind of conversation about sin and sinners that Jesus’ own disciples had been having when they came across the blind man. “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath. How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” Where the man born blind wants only to say what he has experienced in his own life, what has happened to him, the authorities want to talk about him, to try and cram his experience into a set of rules and laws they can understand. Finally, not wanting to own their own questions about Jesus, they project them onto the man with new sight: “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”

In response, the man is emboldened to go beyond simply describing what had happened to him, and his begins to make claims about what it means. “He is a prophet,” might just as well be, “He is one of us. He is a part of our community. He is the ethic beneath the laws. He is the teller of truths. He is the voice that will not be silent. He is the past and the future. He is a prophet.”

This courage threatens the powers that be, as well as everyone else who has found a way to get by in the world as it is. Even the man’s very own parents are not ready to stand by him as he claims the truth of his own experience. Now the man is not simply reporting the facts, he is risking his own place in the world. Up until now he could back away from his testimony, sharing the facts of what happened without owning what they mean. But no longer. In a showdown between silence in the face of those who had walked by him without seeing him, and the one who had seen him and given him sight, the newly sighted man is ready to challenge the powers that be.

This is the third testimony, the point at which our story goes beyond conviction to risky words and risky actions. “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also what to become his disciples?” Now the man has found his voice, and refuses to be silenced by power, in fact he challenges it directly, proposing a new understanding of life and our place in it that contradicts what had come before:

“Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but does listen to one will worship and obey God’s will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (John 9:30-33)

And now he’s said it, he’s moved beyond simply reporting the facts to declaring what they mean. Jesus is from God, and so is the miraculous new perspective he offers, the new sight.

After this testimony the newly sighted man is driven out of the community. Here we must pause and consider all that this means. These Jews were not the center of the Roman Empire, they were at the edge. They were an oppressed and occupied community. Their solidarity with one another was one of the primary ways they survived in a hostile culture. The man born blind was a marginalized man among marginalized people, and what little community he had he’d just lost.

Can you imagine the first audience of this gospel, Jews living decades after Jesus’ life and death and resurrection who had never seen him, but were risking everything by confessing him as Lord. Now there can be no doubt that they knew this newly sighted man represented them in the story.

It’s at this point that Jesus and the newly sighted man finally see one another face to face. Jesus hears that the man he healed has been cast out of the community, and he goes to him, pursues him and finds him and asks, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (John 9:35)

The man born blind doesn’t know who this is, but he knows that he is ready to believe whatever Jesus tells him. He has been transformed by his testimony, he is committed to the cause. “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” (John 9:36)

“You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”

“Lord, I believe.” (John 9:37-38)

This is the fourth testimony. I believe. I have experienced the healing, the freedom, the liberation that comes from God. I have found my voice. I have refused to be silent. I have lost those who could not see the presence of God in my life, but what I have seen I cannot unsee. I am not nameless, I am not sightless, I am not voiceless. I am yours. I am God’s. Lord, I believe.

This story of testimony comes to us just past the midway point in the season of Lent, a season of preparation for baptism; a season, historically, when those who had denied their faith in Christ were offered a way back into the congregation; a season when each of us looks inside to see where we ourselves have capitulated to the powers of this world that try so hard to ignore us, to shame us, to silence us; a season when we look outside ourselves to see where the world groans in anticipation of a new creation.

This Sunday’s story challenges us as much as it challenged the church at the end of the first century. What do we stand to lose when we stand by the truth of our own lives? Who will stand with us, and who will not? What waits for us on the other side of our healing, our liberation?

Jesus does. Now as then, the Jesus we have heard of but never seen becomes more and more real, more and more visible, as each of us finds our voice and shares our testimony. We are God’s people, washed in the pool of sending to share our story with the world.

Giving glory to God,
Amen.

 

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Sermons

Sermon: Wednesday, March 5, 2014: Ash Wednesday

Texts:  Isaiah 58:1-12  +  Psalm 51:1-17  +  2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10  +  Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

The prophet Isaiah issues a call to action, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!” (Isa. 58:1) and Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew replies, “So, whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so they may be praised by others” (Mt. 6:2)pb-120222-ashes-2-go-01.photoblog900At El stops across the city, people have been getting their ashes-to-go since this morning’s commute, even as Jesus continues with “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others” (Mt. 6:5) And, it is almost guaranteed that if you leave worship tonight with the sign of the cross on your forehead and venture into any public place, someone will ask you, “what have you given up for Lent?” How will you answer, given that Jesus instructs, “whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward” (Mt. 6:16)

What’s a faithful Christian to do with this season of Lent?

Though they may disagree on the surface about the nature of our repentance, whether it should be public or private, the prophet Isaiah and Jesus share in common a distaste for the hypocrisy that fills too much religious ritual.  When Isaiah instructs his listeners to lift up their voices like trumpets, it is not so that the world can see their faith, but so that the community can hear as an honest account of their failings is made public.

Isaiah mocks the pleas of the people as he mimics their complaints, “why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (Isa. 58:3a)  In response he offers a cold dose of hard truth, “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers” (Isa. 58:3b).  The prophet has sounded the horns not to praise the people, but to take a searching and fearless moral inventory of their wrongdoings.

cb_alcoholics_anonymous_ll_120314_wgIf that language of “searching and fearless moral inventory” sounds familiar to you, then you’re probably acquainted with the 12 steps and 12 traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, or one of the many communities of recovery based on the 12-step spirituality that emerged from AA.  The steps are an essential part of the process of healing that restores people to life and makes it possible for them to return to the families and communities they have harmed in a new way.  Listen to the twelve steps:

We admitted that we were powerless … that our lives had become unmanageable.

Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood God.

Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.

Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.

Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to [others who shared our condition], and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Taken as a whole, the 12 steps set out by communities of recovery like Alcoholic Anonymous give us, perhaps, contemporary language for making sense of the ancient traditions of Ash Wednesday.

We are addicts, all of us.  Some of our addictions are confined to our own personal behavior — be that drinking or drugs, gambling or sex.  Some of our addictions, though, are harder to spot because we share them with so many of the people around us — a reliance on violence, in any of its many forms, to establish and maintain control; a dependency on wealth to prop up a flagging sense of self; a habit we just can’t shake of taking on more and more work to prove to ourselves and others just how important we are. Then there are those mass addictions, our unhealthy attachment to goods and services that come to us at great expense to others: foreign oil, sweatshop clothing, cheap food, and the list goes on.  We allow ourselves to remember only briefly and occasionally the cost others pay daily so that we can get our quick fix of consumer culture and conspicuous consumption.

In 12-step recovery programs, the promise that’s held out is that there is restored health and new life available to all, but that to get there we will have to be honest with ourselves, with others, and with God.  The same is true tonight, on Ash Wednesday, as we begin a season of repentance and renewal that will last forty days, and will culminate in our celebration of the resurrected life that is ours through Christ Jesus when we finally arrive at Easter on the other side of this season.

But that is still forty days off, and the new life that God is always giving us comes to us all, rich and poor, one day at a time.  There will be many steps between this night and that great morning, but none of us can speed the days or avoid the work to be done in the interim.  “Now is the acceptable time; see now is the day of salvation!” (2 Cor. 6:2b)

Tonight’s work is to take a searching and fearless inventory of our failures as individuals and as a people — not in order to generate a certain mood, or the appearance of penitence — but so that we can actually open our hearts and our lives to the healing that God is always and already pouring into and over us.

As we do our work we will be marked with ashes, not so that the world around us might notice what good Christians we are, but so that we might remember that life is short, and precious, and sooner than we can imagine will be over.  And why would we want to spend one more minute of our irreplaceable lives pretending to be well, when God is already at work making us truly whole.

Amen.

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