Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Blessed are those who have not seen

Easter 2A.  27 April 2014.


          It has become the tradition of the church to read from the Acts of the Apostles in place of the Old Testament lesson during the Easter season, which means of course that combined with an Epistle lesson, we are given two lessons from the New Testament.  Three, if you include the Gospel—and the Gospel lesson on this Sunday is always the story of Thomas, who misses Jesus' first appearance on the day resurrection, but then one week later, Jesus returns. 


          The result of this combination of these lessons is a very interesting course of study on seeing and believing—or not seeing and believing—or not seeing and not believing!


          The lesson from Acts could be called one of the first resurrection sermons.  It is offered by Peter.  It contains a theological assertion that the handing over of Jesus to be crucified was, as Peter says, "according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God."  If you read the Passion narrative carefully, you will notice that Jesus is brought to trial and then released.  He had done nothing worthy of punishment, but the people still wanted him gone.  Peter proclaims, in essence, that even amidst the chaos of the crowd God is working out a divine initiative.  That it wasn't just caprice or mob mentality, but that God was overseeing and directing this. 


          Within the Christian tradition, you will encounter a very strong theological doctrine that what is really going on is that the Messiah of God was offering himself.  We studied this in our Lenten series—that Jesus is fulfilling the ancient rites of atonement, wherein Jesus puts an end to all sacrifice by summing all sacrifice up in his body. 


          Follow me here.  There is human sacrifice, animal sacrifice, and food sacrifice.    So Jesus, the man, the lamb of God, and the bread and wine, all together and at once were offered to the Father—human, animal, and food—so that no other sacrifice could be made more fully. 


          Peter is making this proclamation—that Jesus was not a helpless victim of circumstances, but that he was offering himself in obedience to the Father.  We recite this theology in many ways in The Book of Common Prayer, perhaps most beautifully in Eucharistic Prayer A, which reads, "He stretched out this arms on the cross, and offered himself in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world."


          Peter is proclaiming that God was in control, even in the most chaotic moment of Christ's life.  And then he transitions to the Easter message, "But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power."  And he gives the citation from David—from the Psalms—for all of this to be considered God's action—God's initiative. 


"For you will not abandon my soul to hell, or let your Holy One experience corruption.  You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence."


          It was the tradition of the rabbis to give references when speaking.  "For David says…"  For Moses wrote…"  Do you remember when they said of Jesus that "he speaks as one having authority and not as the scribes?" (Matthew 7.29)  To speak as the scribes is to give citations and references.  Peter is trying to show that the Resurrection is an continuing revelation of what God wishes to do for his people—that it's not just a brand new theological concept, that this makes sense within their tradition.


          "This Jesus," says Peter, "God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses."  By "all of us," he means all of the other disciples—not that everyone in that crowd had seen Jesus.


          Here you begin to see the problem that the disciples are going to have to address:  Some have seen, and others have not. 


          So flip over to the first letter of Peter, and here he writes, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!  By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead…Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls."


          Again, some have seen, and others have not.  And within this letter you begin to see how Jesus' resurrection moved by faith from those who did see to those who did not.  The faith moved to others because they believed the disciples.


          It is not that the risen Jesus came physically to everyone he knew—everyone he had healed, or fed, or ate and drank with.  He came to his disciples.  He came to others, but he revealed himself—post-resurrection, anyway—to a very small group of people.  And it is through their witness that—2000 years later—those of us who believe have come to believe. 


          The faith in Our Lord's resurrection did not remain with the select group of people who saw him.  They shared this faith, and through sharing it with others, other people came to believe. 


          It's as simple and as complicated as that.  And what I want to say is that it remains that simple and complicated. 


          It is simple language to say, "I believe that Jesus is alive," but try saying it to someone else.  It's hard to do, because the inevitable questions come up, whether from inside of youself, or from someone else, "Why do you believe that?"  "Are you just saying that you believe that, or do you really believe that?"  "How have you come to believe that?" 


          And then you sort of see yourself standing there—alone—with the question or questions in front of you, and maybe you start to feel like a first grader in elementary school.  You've been asked to substantiate your claim. 

          "Okay, you believe.  That's nice.  Why?  How?  Did you see him?  Can we have some kind of evidence here?"


          And the knees shake a little bit, because you feel like this is not just a single issue.  Your answer may be the way in which others assess your credibility, and what does that say about the other things that you claim to be true?


          The questions are a threat.  They expose you.  You didn't see.  You heard.  You were told.  So who told you?  (Pause.)


          Your grandmother was a sweet woman.  She made you cookies and you sat next to her in church and she believed, and because you loved her, you said you believe.  What about now?  Did her faith become your faith, or did you just borrow hers, because you loved her?  Well.


          Maybe she borrowed her faith from her grandmother..?  Well…now there's an interesting thought!  But see, if you follow that line of grandmothers all the way back, eventually you will find the twelve disciples and an empty tomb. 


          Do you see what I'm saying?  The person who believes but hasn't seen trusts in the testimony of those who did see.  I have not seen Jesus risen from the dead.  Neither did I know him before he was crucified.  But I have come to believe in him through the testimony of those who did—and that faith has been passed along for 2000 years.


          So to share this faith is to say, "I believe in this," to someone else.  It is not sharing information.  This is sharing faith.  And faith by its very nature is not able to be backed up with cold hard facts.  It is only backed up by the fact that others have come before us who have also believed.  That we have not conspired to tell a lie, but to share the faith—to trust—in those who saw.


          Now, if you are someone who doesn't like to trust other people, you may have trouble believing in the resurrection.  Consider Thomas.  You would think that he would have come to trust the other eleven disciples who had seen Jesus.  They have said to him, "We have seen the Lord."  And Thomas responds, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands…I will not believe."  Think about that. 


          This happens the day of the resurrection, and Thomas is out of the room, but there are eleven of his closest friends—people he has worked and prayed beside—and the implicit meaning of what he says to them is, "I don't believe you.  I don't trust you."  


          And a whole week passes.  Seven days of this.  I have imagined Peter going from man to man trying to catch them in a discrepancy.  "Are you sure he said, `Peace be with you'?"  "You say you saw the marks of the nails?"  "You say he breathed on you.  Was it a blow?  Was it a sigh?  Was it is a…I don't know…a kind of half sigh/half blow?"


          And John records that when Jesus returned and proved his resurrection to Thomas, Jesus said, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."  And perhaps what Jesus was really saying is, "Why didn't you trust the people who told you?"


          Do you realize that the Resurrection of Christ is the most frequently remembered action in human history, and it is also the most frequently doubted?  Think about that.  This moment in time when God ripped through the fabric of space and re-created his son eclipses every moment in human history before or since.  We don't tell any story from any other time with greater frequency, but you ask people, "Did it happen?"  Or if someone asked you, "Did it happen?..."  What would you say to them?


          And it still comes back to trust.  Jesus says to Thomas, "Do you believe because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not see, and yet have come to believe."


          I've told you this story, but I'm going to tell it again.  Last year Maggie was taking swimming lessons.  And there she was standing on the diving board with a teacher holding her from behind, and a teacher immediately below her in the water.  And the teacher in the water said, "Maggie!  Jump!  I'll catch you!"  And you could see the wheels spinning in her head, as she calculated the probability that what the teacher had said was a lie. 


          And here we are in church.  You are on the diving board, the Holy Spirit is behind you, and the whole company of heaven—the whole communion of saints—is in the baptismal water below.  And they are shouting, "Don't worry, Church!  Jump!  Christ is risen!" 


          "Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe." 





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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Sermon for Easter Day

Easter Day.  20 April 2014.



John 20.1-18


            We have come at last to the Sunday of the Resurrection, the Church's full-throated proclamation of Christ's triumph over sin, sickness, and death.  The Resurrection is the exclamation point behind the life of Jesus, which shines a light of glory on all that Jesus was, and all that will be to come.


            I read an article recently in which the author suggests that the Resurrection of Christ may not be the best entry point for someone new to the story of Jesus, and to the faith of Jesus.  The idea is that for a person to experience Christ as those who came to know him in this life, or those who have come to know him through the Gospels, it may be better for them to begin with his birth, and follow him—across the sacred page, across his many acts of mercy and teaching—and then, finally, to the story of his crucifixion, and resurrection. 


            For, the author argues, it is by first encountering him as a person like we are that we are able to then follow him, and see ourselves in him.  So that when he is raised, we are able to rejoice that it is not a person we never knew—but the person who has become our friend and brother, the person who has become our Lord and Savior.


            To put it bluntly, we must first fall in love with him, or we will never really know him, mourn his death, or really rejoice in his resurrection.


            I think that is, perhaps, why many people don't believe.  Or why people think that Christianity is a fairy tale.  They know the key moments in the story, but they do not know Jesus.  To know Jesus is to be swept into his life—to listen to his Sermon on the Mount, to hear his compassion, to see the glimpses he gives into the eternity of God, and to find yourself in awe and wonder. 


            I believe, and have always believed, that being a Christian is first and foremost to be a person who has fallen in love with the Living God.  That is not to deny the intellectual beauty or density of the Faith, or to under value the profound dimensions of ethical and moral living that Christ Jesus taught.  What I mean is that it is through the mind that the heart falls in love.   


            Surely that is how the disciples came to know Jesus, and it is to his disciples that Jesus revealed himself in the Resurrection.  We have read John's account of that day, the first day of the week.  Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb.  She comes as a mourner.  She comes as someone who has come to know God's love through Jesus, who is in her mind, still dead.


            It would have been unthinkable to anyone that Jesus would be otherwise.  He had been raised on the cross in a very public and very humiliating way.  Everyone had either seen him there, or heard that he had been put to death.  And it would have been impossible for him to survive such an ordeal.  He would have been flogged to within an inch of his life. 

            He would have lost most of his blood from the whip and nails—yet it was likely suffocation that finally took his life, his body unable to bear is weight that would have allowed him to breathe.


            Understand, please, that his resurrection was not merely coming back to life—even though that in itself would have been tremendous.  People can, and have, come back to life in hospitals, but they still have the heart condition, or the illness that brought them to point of death in the first place.  But Jesus was able—after his resurrection—to stand and walk, to be able to speak—it's unthinkable.  Resurrection, therefore, is not just coming back to life, but God re-creating and redeeming his Son into a whole new category of existence.


            Mary comes to the tomb as someone who has known and loved Jesus, personally.  This isn't just a story for her.  This is the man she loved, who had ministered to her and cared for her as no man had before.  She is mourning his life, and the insult of his death is doubled by the fact that the stone has been moved from the door of the tomb, and his body is no longer there. 


            She runs to tell Peter and John.  And they come running and see that there was no body, but the linen wrappings are there—the one for his head folded up and laying apart. 


            Do you remember the story of Lazarus when he comes out of the tomb at Jesus call—he is still bound in linen cloths.  Jesus has to tell the people watching to unbind him and let him go.  Jesus has unbound himself—and the linens, like shackles in a jail cell remain—remnants of a bygone era in which death was final word. 


            Mary comes to the tomb herself, weeping.  Weeping for his death, and weeping at the disrespect of those who have stolen his body and done who knows what with it. 


            She bends over to look into the tomb and she sees two angels in white who ask her, "Woman, why are you weeping?"  As if they don't know!  They know why she is weeping—we know why she is weeping.  But the writer of John's Gospel wants to get us there before she does—the author of John's Gospel wants us to see the look of surprise on her face—like crouching in the dark before a surprise party.


            She says to the angels, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him."  And when she had said this—almost as if she is being interrupted—she turns and sees a man behind her who says, "Woman, why are you weeping?"


            She did not recognize him.  She supposed that he was the gardener, and he is the gardener, for the world died in the night, and this is the dawn of a new day in a new creation—a new garden of Eden. 


            She says, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away."  You can almost hear the helplessness in her voice some two thousand years later.  A dejected, defeated humanity saying, just give him back and let me bury him, and let me bury myself beside him—because if he whom I love is dead, then I am dead.


            And then he says her name.  (Pause.)            "Mary!"  And when she hears her name on his lips, Jesus pulls her from death to life—from the old world of sin, sickness and death—and into the kingdom of God where death is just falling asleep.


            And she turned and said to him, "Teacher!"  Jesus said, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.  But go to my brothers and say to them, `I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'"  And Mary went and became the first evangelist, as she proclaimed to them, "I have seen the Lord."


            The implication of John's Gospel is that through this story, you too have been given sight to see Jesus risen from the dead.  You, too, have been pulled from death into life, and are meant to become evangelists—bearers of the good news.  To us is given the kingdom of God.  Alleluia!  Christ is risen!





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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


Monday, April 7, 2014

That you may believe and have life

To listen, click here.


John 11.1-45


            We have been reading through John’s Gospel for Lent, and as I mentioned last week, we’ve been reading through what the biblical scholar Raymond Brown called “the Book of Signs,” which are the first eleven chapters.  The Lazarus story is the turning the point in the Gospel, from the Book of Signs to the Book of Glory.


            Forgive me, but I’d like to review some foundational elements of John’s Gospel that help us understand it better.  First remember that the first chapter, the Prologue of John contains the key to understanding it.  John writes that Jesus came to his own people and his own people did not accept him; but to those who did receive him and believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.  So, whereas Jesus is the only born, or only-begotten Son of God, those who have eyes and ears and hearts to see him, and believe in him, he extends his sonship. 


            This is John’s understanding of Christianity—some see him, some don’t.  Some worship him and follow him; some don’t.  That’s not be exclusive or in any way arrogant.  Sometimes people don’t see or believe because the time is not right.


            A priest friend of mine was recently telling me about a parishioner she has who likes to cast doubt on the biblical material, or on Jesus himself.  Some folks like to do that, but the plain fact is that though there are elements of genuine history, the person and story of Christ is something you can only approach with your mind but so far.  At a certain point, you have to let the story be the story; you have to either accept it, and believe, or not.  And if not, perhaps just not yet, but it will never work like a mathematical equation.  At certain point, either you believe or you don’t.


            The Book of Signs—John’s Gospel—is written that we may come to believe.  It is like rewinding the movie and watching it again because there are parts we missed when it was really happening.  So the signs are organized in such a way that they get bigger and bigger.  Today is the biggest sign, the bringing back of Lazarus from the dead. 


            In the past I have wanted to call this the resurrection of Lazarus, but I know that scholars and theologians would object.  They would want me to call it a resuscitation, or a coming back to life, because resurrection belongs first to Jesus, and is then extended to humanity after Jesus was raised.  The theology there is that resurrection is a re-creation—a whole new category of existence inaugurated by Christ.  Lazarus cannot be said to have been resurrected, because Lazarus would one day die again. 


            Though this story is written like a historical account, we must remember that objective history is not really the point.  John wrote at the end of his Gospel, “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (20.31) 

            Writing that you and I “may believe” and “may have life” is different that writing that you may know who said what to whom, so to enter John’s Gospel is to allow him to speak of meaning more than facts.


            As you recall from the story of Nicodemus, when Jesus said to him, “You must be born from above,” such is the way in which Jesus acts and behaves.  He speaks and acts “from above.”  So when Jesus learns that his friend Lazarus is ill, he does not rush off to help him like you or I would.  Jesus says that Lazarus’ “illness does not lead to death, rather that it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”


            Did you notice that Jesus uses the expression “Son of God?”  If you read through John, you will notice that he refers to himself almost exclusively as the Son of Man.  Son of Man is an expression of humility—like saying son of mankind, or humankind.  You and I are sons and daughters of humanity.  Jesus only refers to himself as the Son of God here, and only one time before, in the fifth chapter, when he says, “‘Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” (5.25)   In both instances, Jesus is speaking about how he will be calling to the dead, and they will hear him. 


            Jesus stays away two days longer.  This is highly symbolic.  Jesus is away from Lazarus; Jesus is apart from the Father for the two days after his crucifixion.  God seems absent from the occurrence of death—which makes sense, if you look at it from a very primitive mindset.  If God is the source of life, therefore death must be an absence of God.


            That is why we often see sin and death together.  Sin is a turning from God, and without the life of God, we perish.  We don’t really think in those terms now, but that is because of the resurrection of Jesus.


            Jesus finally goes to Bethany.  Martha comes to Jesus and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”  Jesus said, “Your brother will rise again.”  Martha said, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection.”  Jesus said, “I am the resurrection, and life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me, will never die.  Do you believe this?”  Martha said, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”


            Please notice that Jesus speaks of life in the context of death.  “Even though they die, they will live.”  It’s a paradox; it’s not something you can fit neatly into the orders of existence and non-existence.  In the Hebrew mindset, death is a complete annihilation.  For our Lord, there is no such thing as complete annihilation.  Jesus says from the very beginning of this story that death is a kind of sleep from which he has the ability to wake someone.


            Mary comes out to see Jesus and says the same thing Martha said, “If you had been here my brother would not have died.”  It is at this point that John says that Jesus is greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.  That’s how the translation reads.  In Greek, the language is closer to “moved to core of his being.” 


            When he first comes to Martha, he is not described as being emotionally touched by the situation.  But between his interaction with Martha, and Mary’s same words to him… Well.   I can’t get into the mind of Christ, but I think John is trying to get us to see that Jesus, who at first does not really seem all that moved by grief, is finally touched by the grief of those around him.  And here we get a very rare window into the humanity of Jesus. 


            Whereas before in John’s Gospel, Jesus seems much “from above” and other worldly as to be, perhaps—dare I say—off-putting, it’s like it really comes home to him what it’s like to be fully human, to see things from our side, to not really know what he knows.  I don’t think Jesus is crying because Lazarus is dead, but because of the pain of those who live on. 


            And I wonder if part of this is Jesus weeping at how his death is going to affect the people around him.  Because, you see, this is the turning point in John’s Gospel.  Lazarus will come out of the tomb, but for that to happen, Jesus will have to enter it.  Jesus will die a human death, and his friends and family will grieve.  They will grieve over his crucifixion.  Even though he will rise, he will not be able to remain with them.  So, his family and friends will grieve his death—celebrate his resurrection—but then return to grieving his departure into heaven.


            And he must know that as he approaches the grave of his friend.  He must know that for us who believe in his name, even to this day, that we will grieve and need consolation. 


            Jesus calls into the tomb.  Life calling into death.  As John records him saying in chapter five, “‘Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” And Lazarus, who has died, hears the voice of the Son of God, and comes out. 


            Do you have eyes to see what John is saying here?  He is saying that Jesus has the power over life and death, even before he offers himself to death, he has the power over death.  So when he does finally offer himself to the betrayal and the cross, he does so as someone who is laying down his power. 


            When he rises from the tomb, he will speak again.  Do you remember how John tells the resurrection story?  Mary Magdalene is standing there weeping at the tomb, and she hears someone say, “Woman, why are you weeping?”  She supposed it was the gardener.  And it was.  The gardener of a whole new creation, but she did not know it! She says, “Sir, if you have taken him, tell me, that I may go and bury him.” 


            It is the dead who hear the voice of the Son of God, and here it is Mary Magdalene who is dead.  She is dead from her grief, so dead that she can’t even recognize the Resurrection and the Life staring her in the face.  And so the Son of God speaks again, so that the dead can hear his voice! 


            He says her name, “Mary!”  And when she hears her name on his lips, she is pulled from death to life.  And now Mary Magdalene is alive again.  (Pause.)


            This week we begin to turn the corner into Passiontide, the two weeks before Easter, and I want to plant seeds of the resurrection in your hearts.  I want to impress upon you the image of Jesus, moved to the core of his being—deeply troubled and grieved. 


            There is grace for you in this story.  Jesus weeps.  Lazarus coming out does not erase his death.  Jesus rising from the tomb does not erase the flogging and nails of the cross.  The Gospel is not that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.  The Gospel of Christ is that even though we sometimes bear much more than we can handle, that the voice of the Son of God can be heard over the grief—and that the Son of God can pull us back into life.


            This would be a good week to take some inventory of the areas of your life that are in need of the resurrection.  And as we enter the most Holy Week of the Christian year, may I suggest that you bring those areas and place them into the wounded hands of Jesus.  Walk closely with the Lord over these next few weeks, and just let him work with you.


            I do not know how he heals, and redeems any more than I can explain how Lazarus or Jesus came out of the tomb, but “these things are written [and spoken] that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”





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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Needing eyes to see

Lent 4A.  30 March 2014.


John 9.1-41


            We have been reading through John’s Gospel.  Today we read one of the lengthier accounts of one of Jesus’ signs.   Before we begin, I want to remind you that John uses the word “sign,” instead of miracle, because the point he makes throughout the first fourteen chapters of his Gospel is that the miracles Jesus performed were signs of who he is.  It’s not like Jesus was just showing off—he was revealing the character of God, and inaugurating the kingdom of God.


            I have mentioned some time ago that the biblical scholar, Raymond Brown, has divided John’s Gospel into two sections, what he called “The Book of Signs” chapters 1-11, and “The Book of Glory” chapter 12 through the end.  We’ve been reading through “The Book of Signs” over these last several weeks. 


            We started very fittingly with the story of Nicodemus.  Nicodemus says he can see the signs, and Jesus says that he can’t see anything unless he is born from above.  The faithful reader of John’s Gospel is put on notice.  None of this is going to make sense unless you have eyes to see.  The next Sunday we read the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, and the sign of Jesus’ radical inclusion of people other than just Jews. 


            Today, we have the healing of a man born blind, and next week, we read the granddaddy of all the signs, the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  If you read through the Book of Signs sensitively, you will notice that the signs get bigger and bigger—though you still needed eyes to see them.


            I’m sure you noticed how long the story of the man born blind is.  You may have even checked out a little bit while I was reading.  I don’t mean that disrespectfully; we all sometimes do that when a lesson is too familiar, or too foreign.  Or too long. 


            There are several ways you can interpret this story.  But let’s fly over it, and consider the whole thing from 10,000 feet.  The story can be broken into three parts.  One, Jesus is present with the man born blind and heals him.  Two, Jesus is absent from the story.  Three, Jesus comes back to talk with the man who was blind but now can see, and has been witnessing to the sign.  That’s a very simple way to divide the story, and you could preach a sermon from that—that John is speaking symbolically of how Jesus came and revealed himself, but he left humanity, and will one day return to humanity. 


            Or you could divide it into six parts.  In the first part, Jesus meets the man and a conversation is had about whether or not sin is to blame for the man’s blindness.  Jesus heals the man, but then in part two the man returns home and the people are confused.  Part three, the man is brought before the religious authorities to give answers.  Part four, the man’s parents are questioned.  Part five, the authorities return to question the man. 


            Part six, Jesus comes to the man again and the point of the story is brought home: in the kingdom of God, the blind can see, and those who think they can see are blind.  It’s kind of like a return to the Nicodemus story, you see?  You must be born from above to see.


            I wonder if you have read over this text, either today, or in the past, and were confused, disgusted, or maybe delighted with the actual story of the man’s healing.  Jesus makes a paste of mud and saliva.  My optometrist is a devout Roman Catholic, but I doubt even he would consider this a healthy treatment.


            How it works is really beside the point.  The scandal is that when Jesus is making the mud, he is essentially kneading mud and saliva, and so he is working on the Sabbath, and if the mud isn’t ritually unclean, it certainly ought to be. 


            But beyond that, did this part of the story trigger any other thoughts…perhaps about Genesis, and God forming humanity out of the dust of the earth, and breathing upon Adam the breath of life?  John is all about new creation.  Remember the Book of  Revelations, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth coming down from heaven.” 


            John is all about taking the primal elements of the earth and renewing creation by speaking or breathing.  Even the story of Jesus’ resurrection contains echoes of Genesis: Jesus reveals himself by speaking to Mary Magdalene. 


            God creates in Genesis by speaking “Let there be light.”  In John, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples after his resurrection, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  They become a new creation, a new humanity.  The breath of life.  (Pause.)


            There are many directions we could go this morning, as you can see.  You can try to tease out the many cultural overtones.  You can read it as a meta-narrative about Jesus coming to earth, being understood by some, going away, leaving the Church to proclaim the Gospel until Jesus returns.  And a powerful sermon is waiting to be preached about that.


            I want to look at this man and the community around him.  He has been born blind.  Jesus heals him, but instead of rejoicing and being grateful, they want to know how and why.  They’re like the Keystone Cops, running every which way, and drawing all the wrong conclusions.  The man tells them what happened, and they don’t understand.  His proclamation is simple.  “Jesus opened my eyes.” 


            “But he is a sinner!” they said.  And the man responded, “I don’t know if he is a sinner, but I do know that `I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.’”


            Physical sight is analogous to spiritual sight.  The man can see Jesus.  The man has faith in Jesus.  And everyone around him wonders why.  Why him?  Why. not. Me?  The man’s proclamation is entirely too weak for those who feel left out.  What do you mean he just made mud? What do you mean you don’t know how; you were there! There must be more to it than that.


            And I would guess that while John has made the blind man the sympathetic character in this story, you might feel that the crowd and the religious authorities ought be cut a little slack.  No one wants to feel left out. 


            It’s the same pain we will eventually feel for Thomas when the risen Christ shows up to the other disciples, and Thomas is out of the room.  Why not me? 


            And I think John has a point to make here about the nature of revelation, the nature of recognizing Jesus, and coming to believe in him.  That not everyone sees the signs, not everyone has the same experience of faith and belief, and you have to respect that. 


            I wouldn’t be standing here if I didn’t feel called to the priesthood.  Thankfully, in the Episcopal Church and in most other churches, if a person feels called to ordination, that call must be discerned by the Church as well.  My sense of call wasn’t a moment, really.  There was no thunder or lightning.  It was something that developed and deepened, and was essentially a byproduct of experiences of believing in the risen Lord. 


            I have been very privileged to hear many stories of people who have come to believe, or who have discerned pathways of the spirit, where I found myself nodding along—“yes, that sounds like God,”—but not necessarily because it sounded like my story. 


            And I have also known of people who are good, decent, honorable people, who either don’t believe, or who come to church and do believe, thought they have never felt it.  And I want to say how deeply I respect those folks, because what little I have felt of the faith over the years, has been very fleeting.  Usually, the feelings of knowing and being known come from reflection, and seeing myself in the story of Christ. 


            There have been times I have felt as if God was, metaphorically, walking beside me.  Moments of transcendence.  Moments of grace, when I felt I was permitted the chance to glimpse behind the curtain, but they’ve been impressions.  St. Paul wrote that we walk by faith, not by sight.  It is more often about the willingness we have to believe than any confirmation God could give.  What I’m saying is that no one should be jealous of anyone else’s spiritual experience, because “the wind blows where it chooses.” 


            One of my favorite stories is about a friend of mine who was an artist.  She had been raised in the Episcopal Church, even attended an Episcopal school in her childhood, but she had come away from the church.  And at some point she was employed to clean the stained-glass windows for a church.  It was an Episcopal parish, and she said she was alone in the church, up on a ladder, cleaning.  She said she felt as if there was a presence at the Altar.  It didn’t really feel as if anyone’s eyes were on her, but that there was a presence.  She looked up at the Altar and no one was there. 


            She said she internally fought with the presence—wanting it to go away, feeling unsure whether the presence was love or anger, but sure that it wasn’t about to let her go.  Finally, she couldn’t bear the feeling inside her.  And so she shouted at the Altar, “What do you want from me?”  She was a classmate of mine in seminary, and is now a priest in Iowa. 


            If you look back over your life with just a bit of openness, I’d be willing to bet that you can point to moments when God was palpably present with you.  Maybe they were moments you confused with simply being happy, or wondering why you weren’t more sad about something.  That poem about footprints in the sand comes to mind..the moments when it seemed like we were all alone, but in fact, God carried us.  That’s the kind of thing you don’t recognize when you’re going through it, but when you look back, you understand that God was truly with you. (Pause.)


            Not everyone would likely celebrate your recognition of that.  The crowd didn’t clap and cheer for the blind man—they wanted to know how and why, and why didn’t I get something from this?  But to you who are willing to see—who are made able to see—and believe, Christ has come near you.  And the more open you are to that, the more you will experience it.






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