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,



Sermon: Sunday, August 19, 2012: “A Game of Thrones; Act 3, Scene 3 — Feasting on the Word”

Texts:  1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14 and Psalm 111  •   Ephesians 5:15-20  •   John 6:51-58

You know by now that we’re following the Old Testament readings in worship this summer, at least for the next two weeks — then we’ll move into a series of texts related to creation and the environment for the month of September — so at some point in this sermon I’m going to have to address this dream in which God approaches King Solomon like a genie in a bottle and tells the new king to make a wish.

But before I get to that story, I feel like I have to say a few words about the gospel reading for this morning.  If you’ve been to church at all in the last month, you may be experiencing something like deja vu as you listen to the gospel text.  That’s because, since July 29th, we’ve been slowly working our way through the sixth chapter of the gospel of John — in which Jesus makes a long, drawn out comparison between himself and a loaf of bread.  The metaphor reaches its overblown pinnacle this morning as we hear Jesus say, “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

In a world filled with television shows like “True Blood” and “The Walking Dead,” about vampires and zombies respectively (and, incidentally, two of my favorite TV programs right now), it’s hard to hear Jesus’ words and not immediately think of the supernatural.  It’s easy, perhaps, for life-long Christians to go into auto-pilot mode as they read through the sixth chapter of John, immediately making the metaphoric leap from Jesus’ body and blood to the sacrament of communion.  Try though to hear this passage with the ears of someone who, maybe, just walked in off the street and is trying to understand who Jesus is and what the people who follow Jesus believe, and you’ll see how bizarre it is.

Then, try to cast yourself back in time about two thousand years to the first century, before Christianity had become a global religion, when people were trying to understand who the people in this strange Jewish cult that was beginning to draw in all kinds of people from across the Roman empire were.  There were rumors on the street that they practiced strange rituals in private, that they ate human flesh and drank human blood.  It had to be addressed, and so — we believe — the writer of John’s gospel put these strange words on Jesus’ own lips in an extended metaphor to get people thinking and talking about what is actually nourishing, what is actually sustaining, what is actually needed for life.  Bread and wine, yes, but even more — wisdom.

The portion of John’s gospel assigned for today cuts off at v.58, but next week — our final week of both the bread passages and the stories of King David’s house — we’ll hear v.59, which provides, I think, a critical piece of context for these shocking and bizarre verses.  Immediately after Jesus says, “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever” John puts this in context, saying “He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.”

We have a number of teachers in our congregation, brilliant people passionate about the subjects they teach and invested in those they teach.  In their efforts to help their students learn, they use every trick in the book.  They joke, they hint, they lead, they tease, they play dumb, they berate, they badger, they tell stories.  They do whatever it takes to get their students to wake up from the culture of anesthesia in which we live that is always numbing us up, dumbing us down, and putting us to sleep.  They are willing to be shocking for the sake of the education of minds and the formation of character.  They might not want absolutely everything they say in the classroom to be excerpted and read out of context at the end of the day.  I think the same goes for Jesus.

When you opened your email on Friday, many of you found our weekly eNewsletter waiting in your inbox.  If you’re visiting with us this morning, or you’ve been coming for a little while but you’re not sure what I’m talking about, you can go to our website (the address is on the back cover of your bulletin) and click on the icon at the bottom of each page that looks like a pencil.  That will sign you up for our weekly eNewsletter.  Or, you can fill out one of the visitor information cards in the back of the pew and put it in the offering plate, and we’ll take care of getting you signed up here in the office.

The lead story in the newsletter this past week was a request from the Education and Faith Formation committee for you to take a quick online survey about the kinds of learning and community building opportunities you’d be most interested in for the upcoming year.  It asks about Sunday morning adult education as well as Sunday School offerings for our children 2 and older.  It asks about mid-week small groups.  It tries to get at the kinds of topics you want to focus on, whether that’s biblical education, theology, spirituality or societal concerns.  The reason for the survey is that we’ve finally hit a place in our growth as a congregation where there are enough people — meaning both enough teachers and enough learners — that we can really branch out and offer a variety of topics based on your interests… though only if you fill out the survey so we know what those interests are.  If you missed the eNewsletter this past week, never fear, you’ll get a few more chances to fill it out, both online and in print over the coming weeks.

I was at a fundraiser earlier this week and the hosts gave us each one of these rubbery wristbands.  You’ve all seen them, it seems like everyone is making them these days.  Lance Armstrong has his “livestrong” wristbands; you get rainbow colored ones at Pride festivals.  I first recall seeing these wristbands pop up back in the 1990s with the letters “WWJD” monogramed into them.  WWJD, standing for “what would Jesus do?”  I think it’s a great question, though, I often got the sense that — rather than opening the bible and finding out what Jesus might do, based on what Jesus for instance had done, that these wristbands functioned more like a rubber band or a piece of yarn reminding us to be nice or play fair.  I don’t think anyone who wore a WWJD bracelet ever turned to their classmate or their co-worker and said, “whoever eats me will live because of me,” though, that is WJD… what Jesus did.

Jesus, like the best teachers in this room, wanted to wake people up to what was really happening in the world around them.  He wanted people to understand the ways they were being used and controlled by the forces of empire.  He wanted to give them a vision of life under another kind of power, another kind of kingdom.  He wanted them to move past the cheap distractions named in the passage from Ephesians this morning of “wine and debauchery” and really engage with the deep truths of the world God made and the world God is constantly remaking.  He wanted them to live in this world as if there were not from this world, as if they were educated and formed in a different world.  A world where worldly wisdom, might and wealth had been replaced by faithful love, justice and righteousness.

That, finally, brings us to King Solomon — David’s son and successor — who has beat out his brothers for the throne, and now finds himself having to rule. He is ruling a nation that goes to war like it was a season of the year.  He is ruling a people who trusted their kings more than their God, but it God that Solomon turns to at the beginning of his reign to ask for the thing he most needed in order to rule well.  Solomon asks for wisdom.  He asks, “give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”

One of Solomon’s weaknesses as a ruler will be his partiality to foreign powers.  Already at the beginning of his reign we read that he has made an alliance with the Pharaoh of Egypt by marrying his daughter.  Egypt, who once held Israel’s people as slaves, has found its way back into Israel’s courts — an ominous foreshadowing of empire’s encroachment on Israel’s future.  But here, at the beginning, Solomon is still asking “what would God do?”  How would God have me lead?  That is the kind of wisdom Solomon needs and God provides.

Friends, we are in no less need of wisdom today.  We may not be kings, but we are asked to act powerfully in our lives and in the world.  I know the stories you are living.  You are people with difficult decisions laid before you.  You are discerning where to work, where to live, who to love.  You are choosing between care for yourselves and care of your families.  You are questioning what it means to be faithful to God and loyal to nation.  You are remembering your youth and imagining your final years.  You are inspecting the stories of your lives and you are asking if there is any kind of coherent through-line, if there is any sense or meaning to the decisions you have made or the choices now before you.  You hunger for wisdom to know what is right and wrong.

Jesus does not dispense wisdom like medicine over the counter.  Jesus offers rough words, hard to understand, that cannot be easily swallowed.  This is an exercise for minds waking up to a way of living in the world that will be hard for others to understand, that will be difficult for them to swallow.  Life with God, following Jesus, will not be as simple as a cord tied around the wrist reminding us to be nice.  Life with God will be cords tying us together, reminding us that we sink or swim not alone, but as one.

“What is God doing?” is a question that requires us to ask “what has God done?”  What answers there are to be found we will find together, when we finally discipline ourselves to lay out the scriptures, chew on their poetry and parables, and feast on what we find.