Gospel of John, Sermon

How Were Your Eyes Opened?

A sermon for Lent 4A    March 2, 2008
John 9:1-41

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.  His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:1-2, NRSV)

We start with a plaguing question. Is it the fault of the man or of his parents that he was born blind?

We would like to think we are past that kind of thinking, and in fact the prophets had gone beyond it, long before Jesus came on the scene. But the idea prevailed among many people, that any sort of disability must be a punishment directed by God against some person or persons.

So, was it the parents who sinned, or the man himself, while still in the womb?

I find that kind of thinking smug and limited, but I'm afraid I subscribed to it myself until I had a good reason not to do it anymore, a personal reason. I'm afraid I couldn't put myself in other people's shoes. I'm afraid I could not see things from another perspective until my mother, dying from multiple metastases of malignant melanoma, wondered quietly what she had done wrong? Why was God punishing her?

I understood how she felt. For a year I had been wondering what lesson God had been trying to teach me when I learned my baby had a genetic abnormality, when I lost my baby. For a year I had been blaming myself.

I had never heard anyone ask the question so directly as my mother did that day, and I knew in that moment, without a doubt, she was wrong. Sure, she was set up for melanoma: a blue-eyed blond with fair, fair skin who lived in the tropics as a child and sunbathed as an adult, a person with a quiet, self-denying personality who kept everything inside, what they now call "Type C." She had all the components, and yet we know there are people with similar characteristics who never develop melanoma or cancer of any kind. Why did it happen to her?

Was it the parents who sinned, or the man born blind?

This was a common question, and we can hear in the story how risky it was for the family to answer it, how many years the parents had kept a low profile as they try to do in this event, to avoid being blamed for their son’s disability. Ask him, they say. He is an adult and can answer for himself!

But they know what the world thinks!! The world thinks they did something wrong, and the only way to get out from under that is to lay the accusation at the feet of their son himself, not the grown-up son begging in the marketplace, but the infant once placed in his mother’s arms, the baby they eventually realized could not see.

Did they feel he was lost to them in that moment of realization, knowing that a person who could not see, whose eyes might even have looked unusual, would be condemned by the neighbors and the people in religious authority?

Was it the parents who sinned, or the man born blind?

What a cruel God they worshiped.

I do not worship that God, and I believe God came to us in Jesus to free us from that way of thinking, yet we know that it persists, that people love to blame the troubles of other people on the wrath of God. It makes us feel safe to define ourselves as different from “them,” right up until others return the favor.

How were your eyes opened? They asked him that question. They wanted to know what Jesus had done to heal him, to change him, to make him nearly unrecognizable, but mostly they wanted evidence to prove Jesus had worked on the Sabbath, to show him to be a breaker of the Law. They were looking for reasons to arrest him, even to kill him, to ensure that he would not be heard or seen again.

He upset the balance, the norm, the status quo, and the Pharisees did not want to hear about it.
Sometimes we go along abiding by a family or community code because we don’t know any better, but other times we do it to remain safe within the system.

I’m not, on the whole, inclined to law-breaking, but why should it matter that Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath? Is it not the day for doing God’s work?

And, really, isn’t every day? There are no limits to the days on which our eyes may be opened, no limits to the days on which we may learn to see.

I want to share something with you, because this is in a sense our last “regular” Sunday together. Next week we will approach the word through drama, and my final weeks with you will be in a holy season that draws more than the usual people to church. So while we are here together, the immediate family, I want to thank you for opening my eyes. Through your willingness to tell me what you thought about what I do, you gave me confidence in areas of my ministry that I hoped I did well, but there had been no one to tell me before. You did it with kind words or the squeeze of a hand, and I thank you for it. God moved through you, and I thank God for it. I am a better pastor for having been with you, better able to see what God is calling me to do.

How were your eyes opened?

Jesus did a strange thing. He spat on the ground used his own saliva to make mud with the dirt of the road. He used that mud to heal the man born blind, to give him visions he had never imagined, to let him see the world, his parents, his neighbors and all those whose voices he knew but whose faces were unfamiliar.

When God restores our sight, we see things differently. The familiar becomes clearer, more recognizable. When my mother voiced her fears, I saw the history of her life, the love and trust she placed in her own mother, the person who taught her such truly terrible things, who “cured” her gall bladder problems with diet and believed in her own will to heal and called it God’s. What worked for her, an orderly system of blame, remorse and repentance leading to victory, left my mother feeling not like a beloved child but like a person begging on the fringes of the community, abandoned by God.

My mother trusted me with her deepest question, and although you know me as a pastor and might understand why she would talk to me about it, she thought seminary was a very bad idea for the mother of young children, and faith had become a closed subject between us. Thanks be to God, she opened it again. Thanks be to God, we talked about it, and I told her, kindly, how I disagreed with her assumptions. Thanks be to God, she heard me and became more forgiving with herself. In her vulnerability and brokenness, spoken aloud in a simple question, my mother opened the door to healing for both of us. In that moment, God broke through and opened both our eyes. At the end of her life, I saw her more clearly and loved her more. At the end of her life, she began to see who I might be and to love that person, too.

How were your eyes opened?

Jesus walked into town with his disciples, a notorious character, already in trouble for his radical actions and teachings, for the company he kept. He walked into town on the Sabbath and he broke the Law and he healed a man who could not see. God broke through. Using the most ordinary element, earth, God broke through. Using part of God’s own self, working in human form, God broke through.

And it happens every day, when we realize what is really happening in the world, when we look in the mirror and know ourselves, when we offer a kind word to someone who needs to hear it, when we ordinary people doing completely usual things meet one another and recognize God is with us in the mud of life and can use it for healing.

Was it the parents who sinned? Or the man born blind?

Our sin is not found in our disabilities any more than our salvation is found in our gifts. God does not rate us based on merit but loves us as we are, human and broken and, yes, sometimes quite completely blind in spirit.

How were your eyes opened? They asked the man and he gave a simple answer about a poultice of dirt and spit, and sometimes those homely answers contain a truth based in facts and observations. But the real opening comes when we see that God is with us in Jesus, and we decided to join him on the journey, wherever it may lead. Amen.

Sermon

Night Moves

A sermon for Lent 2A    February 17, 2008
Genesis 12:1-4a; John 3:1-17

It was a strange request, or it seemed that way at first. The father of my children called. He was going away for the weekend and worried that his pipes might freeze. He asked if Lucy and I would go over to his house, to turn on a space heater and set the kitchen faucet to a modest drizzle, both hot and cold, then return in the morning to turn it all off again.

Of course we regularly share the responsibility for our mutual children, but I found I resisted the idea of being responsible for his property. That territory seemed as dark as the narrow, shoveled path Lucy and I crunched along in the new-fallen snow Friday evening, walking from our car to his back steps.

I have to say it felt odd to go into his house, at night, although he courteously left the kitchen light burning all day, just so the house would not be dark when we arrived. We found the space heater, and I figured out how to make it work.

And then I drove away worried that it might be considered my fault if the house burned down.

Unknown territory can make a person a little nervous.

Nicodemus left his own home at night to travel across town and visit with Jesus. I’m sure it felt like a dangerous choice. The previous chapter tells of the time Jesus went into the Temple and turned over the tables of the moneylenders. You may wonder that it comes so early in John’s gospel. Already in Chapter Two, Jesus has offended the authorities in no small way. His act marks him as a radical, a revolutionary!

Nicodemus, part of the ruling class of their religion, nevertheless wants to ask the table-turning teacher some questions, not the sort that scribes and Pharisees regularly ask Jesus among groups of people, in all four gospels, but the sort that trouble his own heart and mind. He comes not to debate, but to try and understand. He comes even though he knows being seen with Jesus could put him at risk of losing his reputation, his religion, his everything. No wonder he makes the visit under cover of darkness.

And speaking of losing everything:

Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."

So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. (Genesis 12:1-4a, NRSV)

As as a young wife and mother, I went with my husband when he took a job in a land far from my home. I remember the response of friends and extended family was all amazement and shock! How could I go so far away as Maine? We can laugh, because we know where I ended up was here, and it doesn’t seem like a far away land to us at all. But I learned that sometimes we have to leave the familiar places to find out who God wants us to be. We have to be prepared to make a night move, not like Nicodemus’ literal night visit to Jesus, but a willing movement into an unknown future.

To understand what a huge decision it was, we need to remember that leaving home would have been unheard of among Abram’s people. Safety was in numbers, loyalty to family and tribe meant everything, and everybody understood it that way.

Reading these texts from our vantage point, thousands of years after they were written down, is sometimes like doing a puzzle that is missing a piece. Do we understand what the expectations were? Do we have a sense of where the story resides in the greater scheme of things?

When we hear the gospel lesson, do we hear the whole passage, or is verse 16 so familiar that we hear nothing else?

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NRSV)

Do you hear it this way, or do you hear the King James version when you think of it?

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16, KJV)

3:16! 3:16! You’ve seen the numbers held up on signs at countless sporting events. What does that shorthand mean to the man in the rainbow wig and the other people who hold up banners exhorting us with those numbers?  It’s my experience that it means certainty, one answer to all the questions, a bright light being shone to clarify everything. It is the gospel at risk of becoming a slogan, a cheer, a secret code.

“John 3:16" becomes coded language for thinking along the lines of "whosoever saith a certain set of words, the same words someone told me to saith, is all set to go to heaven, and the rest of you fools? Mwahahahaha! You’re going to the other place." It's the theological equivalent of what my dad used to call the speech all athletes make: "We've got a great bunch of guys, and we're going to go all the way." You’re either on my team, or you’ve lost.

But there is so much more to John 3:16 than that.

It is part of a larger story, the story of a man who came with questions and who got perplexing answers. It’s the story of a learned man who discovers he cannot understand the teacher he hopes will make things clear to him. And it ends with no resolution, no guarantee that Nicodemus went away to explain Jesus to others, no conclusion assuring us that Nicodemus caught on to the Good News.

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”

When he left, he may have been just as much in the dark as when he arrived.

And so are we, much of the time.

Maybe the problem is not reading through to verse 17, or maybe it's taking the couplet out of context. Because if you read the whole story, from the entrance of Nicodemus in verse 1, you'll see that what Jesus is saying is not simple or readily understandable. He introduces new concepts, ideas that puzzled even a leader among the Jews, a Pharisee, a learned man. To be born from above, what does this mean?

Nicodemus asks a practical question, trying to show that in a literal interpretation, what Jesus says makes no sense.

And then Jesus employs a literary device that reminds us meaning is found on many levels:

"And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness…" he says, making an allusion to a story from the Hebrew Scriptures familiar to Nicodemus.

We are in the realm of things beyond our understanding, in which we must employ similes and metaphors to come close to comprehending.

His words bring us close, but not all the way, to his meaning and his purpose. They are the pin-prick in a piece of cardboard that allows us an indirect view of the eclipse.

But in our desperate attempt to control what is too powerful for us, we reduce him to a piece of poster board and the shorthand, "3:16."

Faithfulness to God, my friends, does not consist of having control over the message or the messenger. Faithfulness requires letting go of any idea of being in charge of God and instead striking out into the dark, the night, the wilderness, the places we have not mapped and do not know well at all. Faithfulness lies in the night moves.

There was a day when I knew I needed to leave the little church I served before I came here. They did not have enough money to pay for a full-time pastor, and when I say they did not have the money, I mean they really did not have it. There were no endowments, and the active members were already giving generously. There just weren’t enough of them for the money to go as far as needed. We loved each other, so this reality was hard to face. I did not know where I might go or what I might do, but I knew I had to go.

And that is when the Conference Minister said to me, “Have you ever considered doing Interim Ministry? Because if you are interested, I have a church in mind where I think you would be a good fit.”

Talk about moving into the unknown! He suggested something I had never considered, just as Abram would never have considered leaving the tribe. It’s not the desert, and my tribe has traveled with me much of the time, dogs and children, but there is no question that coming to be with you involved a night move, a journey undertaken trusting that the reasons why would become apparent, someday, even if they were not right at first.

We may think it was easy for Abram, since God was the one talking to him, but whether the request comes from God or through another person, often the journey of faith requires us to move into darkness before we can see the light. God is with us in the night moves, the times when we answer the unlikely call, the odd request, with "yes." Amen.

Sermon

Off the Leash

A sermon for Lent 1A February 10, 2008

Genesis 2:15-17,
3:1-7
; Matthew 4:1-11

Sam_2
It’s a recurring conversation at my house. Does Sam need to
be on a leash? His behavior says “no” but the law of the town says “yes.” I
never leave the house without both dogs on the leash, even though I know that
Sam would walk nicely to the car with me and hop in unassisted. He’s not like
Molly, a dog so friendly that she looks for houses when we are out on a walk,
just in hopes of walking up on someone’s front porch to say “hello.” Be in no
doubt, if there are people around, she cannot resist temptation. 

Sam, on the other hand, can resist 99 temptations out of
100, but with a 125 pound dog, you have to know which the 100th is
likely to be. A firm “SAM” will keep him in check where squirrels are involved,
and even with ducks, but if it’s a deer, as has happened a few times at one of
our favorite parks in Falmouth,
forget it. You’d better grab hold of him, or he will go stotting off after them
in a great state of excitement.

 

I really don’t love to let either of them off the leash
unless we are in a fenced park. It gives me a sense of safety. 

Our Genesis reading tells part of the second Creation story
in Genesis, not the seven day creation of Chapter One, but the ancient folk tale
of Chapters Two and Three. Adam and Eve are in the Garden, a sort of safe,
fenced area, and there is only one rule other than to look after the other
creatures there: do not eat the fruit of that certain tree. 

It’s the story that convinces me that God the Father was new
at this parenting thing. 

Last Sunday my daughter and I went to see a production of The Fantasticks, and in that story of
star-crossed love, the fathers of the two young people sing a song about being
parents and the attendant frustrations: 

Dog's got to bark, a
mule's got to bray.
Soldiers must fight and preachers must pray.
And children, I guess, must get their own way
The minute that you say no.

Why did the kids put beans in their ears?
No one can hear with beans in their ears.
After a while the reason appears.
They did it cause we said no. 

Of course, there was more to it with Eve, who had the
encouragement of the Serpent. But I wonder if there isn’t more power in the
story if we imagine the dialogue as interior, the idea springing from Eve
herself, the Satan who tempts Jesus as a mirror image of the man?

Because most of the time temptation does come from within,
from a sense of our own power to make things happen.

All week I have been reading an unfolding story on my
Bernese Mountain Dog club email list about Johann, an 18-month-old Berner just
placed with a new family last week. On Monday night, he bolted out the front .The
poor boy did not know this to be his family yet; perhaps he wanted to find his
REAL home, wherever that had been. 

An email traveled to the Rescue Coordinator for the club,
who sent out an SOS. Club members offered to search for Johann, to hang flyers,
to help in whatever way they could.

Wednesday and Thursday we heard reports he had been spotted,
and there was a brief period of worry that he had broken through a fence onto
495. 

Johann was so far off the leash that no one could do
anything for him. 

Finally, on Friday, came this report: Johann was in a field
at a farm not far from his new family’s home. The farm owner reported he had
been spotted off and on there all week. A club member, Mimi, went over to the
farm with her female Berner, Ivy, in hopes that Johann would find Ivy
attractive enough to come close. Knowing how shy he was, Mimi, who has helped
do this kind of runaway rescue before, came prepared to stay as long as
necessary, to win Johann’s trust.

Temptation_of_jesus
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit
into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty
nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him,
"If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of
bread." But he answered, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread
alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"
(Matthew
4:1-4, NRSV)

All day she waited, watching Johann warm up to Ivy and
finally play with her, but despite delicious meaty bait, he kept his distance
from Mimi.

In our gospel lesson, Satan speaks to Jesus, tempts Jesus, and I wonder,
where were the angels? We know they could not have been far away, for soon they
would arrive to wait upon Jesus, the trials of this temptation over and behind
him, the forty days of mind-altering fasting behind him.

Was it hard to stand by, or hover somewhere close, and do nothing?

Then the devil took him to the holy
city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, “If you are the Son of
God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels
concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you
will not dash your foot against a stone.'
" Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your
God to the test.'"
(Matthew 4:5-7, NRSV)

There are a couple of dogs on our street who frequently get away from their
families and head straight to our house, fascinated by Molly and Sam. As an
overprotective Dog Mama, I am the one who will find a leash and take a dog
home, but I have never had to work with a dog as shy as Johann. I tend to
believe I can power through an encounter and fix the problem. I want to be the angel
who flies in and make things right, my way.

As a parent, I have been protective, too, and I’m sure my children would
agree. But ultimately, I realize I must trust that the instruction I have given
my children will help them decide how to answer when temptation comes. It’s not
just about particular incidents, about whether to go out or stay in, but about
what kind of person to be: kind or unkind, caring or selfish, honest or
prevaricating, whole or broken. Believe me, when I hear from my 12-year-old that there are
pink fuzzy handcuffs for sale at the 7-11 in honor of Valentine's Day, I would
love to swoop in and "save" my child from facing the challenges of
this world. I want to protect her. I want to preserve her from harm. I want to
set her on a high mountain top where nothing will soil her.

Does that make me a frustrated angel? Or am I the one with the real
tempter's power, the one who can say to her, "Oh, the world! Never mind
about the world! Come away with me and separate yourself from the struggles and
questions!"

What I really need to do is equip my children to face the world, exactly as
it is, to be ready to choose well when temptation comes, as it surely will.
They need to know how to live off the leash.

Friday afternoon we heard that Johann was still avoiding Mimi, though he
seemed to feel safe with Ivy. The farm owner offered to let Mimi stay in his
barn overnight with Ivy, leaving the door open in the hope Johann would choose
to be with them.

Again, the devil took him to a very
high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor;
and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and
worship me." Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is
written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"
(Matthew
4:8-10)

I love this story about Jesus because it tells us that he really had a
choice about living in our human skin. And it tells us that God the First
Person, the Divine Parent, had learned a few things along the way in this Human
Experiment. God must have known that temptation was part of the human
experience, and therefore Jesus must learn to make choices, just like the rest
of us.

So, there he was, faced with all his capacity for power and the real choice
before him was whether or not to follow through on the commitment to live out a
human life. We hear that he was about thirty, and since there are no stories
about his younger adulthood and only a few about his infancy and childhood,
we’re left to assume that life had been relatively uneventful for Jesus, son of
Joseph and Mary, the carpenter’s boy. I’m glad for him, glad that there must
have been time to enjoy feeling the warm sun on his skin, time for making
friends, for sharing meals with his family, for the simple moments that are a
large part of what it means to be a living creature. I wonder if he thought of
these home pleasures when he faced down the temptation to unleash his own Godly
powers.

Temptation
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

(Matthew 4:11)

Saturday morning, I got this email:

Hi everyone,

I just got off the phone with Mimi. Johann is safe with her at
her house!

It took 28 hours of baby steps from yesterday morning to today, but the
little guy finally gave in and decided to trust Mimi.

Quite frankly, I've never seen the devotion to a cause that Mimi
just showed us. She and Ivy are quite the team.

Keep those thoughts and prayers flowing toward Westford as Mimi,
Ivy and Johann recover from this ordeal and start to
move forward. Johann is
going to need a lot of love and care.

Real angels sit by and wait. They watch and see. They smile when the
challenges are met, and then they wing their way in to restore the soul from
its battle. They do not interfere before the time is right. They let us work it
out, off the leash. Amen.