Sunday, February 27, 2022

Invitation to Abundant Life: The Body of Christ - Together!

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?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “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 he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his 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.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.  --John 9:1-41 (NRSV)

I’d like to share a story of something that happened to me on Friday evening. It had been a pretty busy week. I was working at home, as I often do on Fridays. To catch up after a busy week and to find some quiet to write my sermon.

At around 4p I received a text message from Steven Renner. I think most of you know him, but, for those of you who don’t, he's the former pastor at Third, now serving a congregation in Alabama.

Every so often, it happens that I receive a text message from him, letting me know of a communication he’s received from someone, thinking he’s still the pastor at Third. So, on that Friday evening, as I was beginning to wrap things up, I got a text that read like this:

I just received this text.
I have no idea who this
is. Neither of us know 
a Joshua. Given the 
grammar, etc. it could 
be spam. Up to you of
course. Pease, S

my name is Joshua
I'm trying to reach
Steve Renner of the 
third Lutheran Church
can you give me a
call back as soon as
possible I have a family
emergency you reach
me at this number....
I'll be here at the number
for a little while thank

So, this is sometimes what we do as pastors. Make a call that we have no idea where it will go. I called this Joshua. And the minute I identified myself, out poured this incredible story, this nearly unbelievable story, of the experience he and his family had been living through for the past few days. He had been calling church after church, just wanting to be heard. 

You see, Joshua, his wife and their two kids, 3 and 6, were driving from Florida to Columbus, Ohio. He’d been offered a job where he could make $9 more dollars an hour. They’d decided to move. Had found a house to rent and paid a deposit. And were on their way there, when they pulled off I-65 at Fern Valley Road to get gas, where they were promptly broad-sided.

After the police had taken the report, the van was taken away by a towing company. In the stress of the moment, according to Joshua, he left his phone and his wallet in the van.

Now, I know where your minds are going. Because my mind went there, too. I’ve been scammed before. I know some of you have, too. 

But, here’s the thing. He never asked for money. The towing company had a strict policy. It was a policy that had been developed because of their own experiences with potential scammers. Once a vehicle was on the lot, no one - no employees, not even the owner - could enter the vehicle until fees were paid and it was restored to the vehicle owner. As much Joshua begged and pleaded over the next two days, the tow company would not relent. They would not let him get his phone and his wallet with his bank card out of the van. This also meant that he could not get the money he needed to pay the fees and retrieve his van.

What he was asking wasn’t for money, but for someone to talk to the towing company. To act as a go-between. To hopefully get them to change their mind. But, no one would hear him. No one would even listen to him. To his story. To his truth. No one would believe him.

In some respects, isn’t this what’s happening in our John text today? Our story is about a man who is speaking his truth. Who tells of his experience with Jesus - who witnesses to Jesus - over and over and over again. As he tells his story, we see his transformation - the deepening of his faith and eventual recognition of and confession of Jesus. Over and over he speaks this truth. Yet he is not heard. Or believed.

They've missed the point, these religious leaders in today’s story. They have not heard - or have refused to hear - the truth, the witness to Jesus offered by this man. Once blind. Now given sight. It is they, not him, who are unable to see. 

What’s most fascinating to me about this story of this man born blind is that he never asked to be healed. Look at the story. Nowhere, unlike other, similar stories in scripture, does this man ever ask to be healed.

So, what if. What if Jesus is healing this man, not for him. But for the community. So that he might be restored back into the community, that they might hear his truth - his experience with Jesus. And that they might believe. And that through the telling and hearing, all of them might be transformed. 

When we exclude people from community. When we refuse to hear their truths - their witness that often comes from the most unexpected people at the most unexpected times, I wonder if we don’t miss out on the abundant life God offers us. A life that is exclusive of no one. Or of no thing that God has created. A life that transforms. That changes us. A life that is worked out together. That is often messy. And that, as someone said this week in our Saturday morning study, is a crap shoot at times.

Yet, what if in this process of life together with all of our different truths - our diverse experiences of Jesus - we meet him more fully? And are all changed? Transformed to live more deeply into this abundant life as the body of Christ, together? Together.

At 1 a.m. on Saturday morning, Joshua and his family got their van back and were on their way, God willing, to a new life. A better life. A more abundant life. In the messiness of our experience together, all of us were transformed. Given a new understanding that we are all in this together. 

May we, too, understand this. That we are all in this together, living into this abundant life promised us by God - a life that is as diverse as all of our experiences. And may we also understand that, somehow, God, in Jesus, is not only with us, but is embodied in and through us. Radically changing us so that we, too, might invite others into this abundant life. Together.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Invitation to Abundant Life: Living Water

Over these past several weeks, we’ve been hearing stories about Jesus welcoming people into a life filled with abundance. Let’s review those stories to help us remember. You may wish to open a Bible to the Gospel of John to help in the remembering. 

The first place to turn is John, chapter 3. In this story, we heard Jesus’ invitation to Nicodemus. Can you retell that story? Take a look at it to refresh your memory.

Next, we learned about Jesus meeting the woman at the well. That story is found in John, chapter 4. Remember that story? Can you summarize it?

Last week, thanks to Pastor Ron, you learned that Jesus is the Bread of Life. This story is found in John 6:35-59. Can you also remember that story? 

This week, we hear about Jesus being life-giving water. And we also hear about the Holy Spirit. In this story, Jesus continues to invite people into a life of abundance. But, there is an undercurrent of tension that is beginning to follow his movements. Even as Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit, we also hear in the background about plotting and deception.

Today's story is from John, chapter 7. After you read it, close your eyes and picture in your imagination what is happening. Feel the mood. How it changes as the story progresses.

We read from John, chapter 7. 

On the last and most important day of the festival, Jesus stood up and shouted,

“All who are thirsty should come to me!
    All who believe in me should drink!
    As the scriptures said concerning me,
        Rivers of living water will flow out from within him.”

Jesus said this concerning the Spirit. Those who believed in him would soon receive the Spirit, but they hadn’t experienced the Spirit yet since Jesus hadn’t yet been glorified.

When some in the crowd heard these words, they said, “This man is truly the prophet.” Others said, “He’s the Christ.” But others said, “The Christ can’t come from Galilee, can he? Didn’t the scripture say that the Christ comes from David’s family and from Bethlehem, David’s village?” So the crowd was divided over Jesus. Some wanted to arrest him, but no one grabbed him.

The guards returned to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked, “Why didn’t you bring him?”

The guards answered, “No one has ever spoken the way he does.”

The Pharisees replied, “Have you too been deceived? Have any of the leaders believed in him? Has any Pharisee? No, only this crowd, which doesn’t know the Law. And they are under God’s curse!”

Nicodemus, who was one of them and had come to Jesus earlier, said, “Our Law doesn’t judge someone without first hearing him and learning what he is doing, does it?”

They answered him, “You are not from Galilee too, are you? Look it up and you will see that the prophet doesn’t come from Galilee.”

As I read, I invite you to close your eyes and to picture in your imaginations what is happening. Feel the mood and how it changes as the story progresses. (John 7:37-52 CEB)

This story begins with promises. It is set during the Feast of Tabernacles, which we also know as the Festival of Booths or Sukkot. The Feast of Tabernacles was one of three festivals that required, under Jewish law, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It was a festival of remembering for the people of Israel. Taking them back to their time in the wilderness, after they had been liberated from Egypt. It was a place where they were completely dependent upon God. This festival had two ceremonies, one centered around water and the other around light - two necessities that provided by God in the wilderness. God, who provided their every meal. Who ensured that they had water to drink. Who led them, even in the darkness of the wild places. Without God, Israel would not have survived. With God, Israel had life

As we’ve seen him do earlier in John around other Jewish festivals and practices, Jesus is using this opportunity to re-contextualize this festival around himself. And around who he is. He begins with a promise. Jesus calls out for all who are thirsty.  And, then, he invites them to drink of him. He promises to be life-giving water. This water, he then explains, is the Holy Spirit. Inviting you to use your imagination once more, if you were in the crowd, how might you have felt or what would you have been thinking if you’d heard this invitation and promise from Jesus? Be honest. Time for responses.

Now, let’s think about the second half of the story. We hear voices in the crowd that question the validity of Jesus’ claims - just as some of us might have, too. The temple guards return to the Jewish leaders and tell them what’s been happening. The only one to stand up for Jesus is Nicodemus. But, then, he is quickly outnumbered and put down. Now what are you feeling? What are your thoughts? Are you asking the same questions? Are you getting uncomfortable?

It is easy for us to fall into a pattern of giving pat answers. What I like to call Sunday school answers. But, I wonder if you or I were present that day, which side we would be on and whether we would claim so quickly to be followers of Jesus. 

Over these last two weeks, I participated in a two-week intensive with my doctoral cohort. The first week, the title of our class was “Not Your White Jesus: De-Centering Whiteness and Nurturing an Anti-Racist Community as Christian Formation.” The second week, the class title was “Risking Attention to Embodied Life Together.” Both of these classes talked about who we are as the Church. And, honestly, about who we haven’t been as the Church. It was a hard two weeks with many hard conversations. Painful conversations.

You see, we, as Christians, don’t have a good history here. It really begins with the early Church who, like us, was influenced by culture. By a culture that teaches us to create our own identity by being in opposition to others. By comparing ourselves to others. By being better than others. Or by exerting more power than others. We saw this carried out in the anti-Muslim fervor of the Crusades. We saw this in Luther’s time and in the use of this very scripture against the Jews. We see this in the Church today - how one form of Christianity is more representative than other forms of Christianity. Or how Christians are better than people of other faiths. And, we see it in ways that are even closer to home.  How we have used scripture to exclude people from this abundant life that God offers for everyone and everything that God has created. 

We need this life-giving water Jesus offers, this Holy Spirit. We need to drink of it deeply. Because it is the Spirit - and the Spirit alone - who can transform our hard and divisive hearts. Who can help us, as in the example - the surprising example - of Nicodemus. It is the Spirit alone who can help us understand that discipleship is hard. That pushing back when someone makes a racist comment, or an anti-gay comment, or an anti-conservative or anti-liberal comment, or any comment that “others” people is hard. It is a way of life that requires us to be utterly dependent upon God. That God will guide us through, even in those wilderness moments. As God did for Israel.  

And just as Jesus does. He is the example for us. Jesus. He was willing to cross boundaries. To build relationships with those who had been tossed out or excluded by the community. To die because of it. So that all people - ourselves included - might experience abundant life. Together.

We are getting close to Lent. Over these next weeks, Jesus’ time with his disciples is about to change. His earthly ministry is nearing an end. Next week, we will celebrate the Transfiguration and then we will begin Lent with Ash Wednesday. Will you follow Jesus on this journey? Will you give up your life or even a portion of it to together travel this hard road with him - this road that leads, even in death, to abundant life?

I pray that you will. That you will drink and drink deeply of the life-giving Water Jesus offers. And that, in doing so, you, too, will experience the abundant life. Given by Jesus. For you. For all creation. Amen.

Preached February 27, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville.
Epiphany 7
Readings: John 7:37-52; Psalm 147:1-11