Saturday, March 3, 2018

“Jesus, Mister Rogers, and You” - March 4, 2018

Text: John 13:1-17

Jesus can be so weird.  So odd.  I don’t mean goofy weird or creepy weird or inscrutably, unexplainably strange.  What I mean is that Jesus is just so very different from what we would expect.  Different from what society would expect of a respectable and successful person.

Consider this: Jesus is famous.  He is a household name.  He has a huge franchise.  Countless millions want to invoke his name and claim to be his follower.  Now the Church – the institution – may be falling out of favor, but not Jesus.  Jesus is popular.  Jesus is a big success.

How do successful people generally act?  How do they behave?  What are their goals and aspirations and visions?  What is their attitude toward life?

Generally, the instinct is to build empires.  To amass wealth.  To lead companies, to build bank accounts, to expand spheres of influence, to exert control.  Folks usually want to cash in on their popularity and make the most of their opportunities.  They take advantage of the symbols of status by driving a luxury vehicle, living in a mansion, flying first class, vacationing in exotic locations and doing it all in style.  They don’t have to do dirty or difficult or menial work – they can hire people to do it for them.

Most of us, of course, never manage most of these things but we aspire.  In our own way, we can aspire to bigger, better, more powerful, more impressive.  And then there is Jesus.

In our scripture for today, Jesus is with his disciples, sharing the meal on Thursday of Passover week.  We have been making our way through the gospel of John, and for the next few weeks we will look at scenes from the last week of Jesus’ life.  Amazingly, 10 of the 21 chapters in John focus on this one week.  The gospel takes place over three years, and if John gave as much attention to every week of those 3 years as he did to this one week, then the gospel of John would contain 1560 chapters (I did the math.)  Admittedly, a lot of important things happen in that week, but this is just to say how much John zeroes in on what we have come to call Holy Week.  And if we wait until Holy Week to look at the events of Holy Week, we’re going to miss a lot.  So here we are.

Jesus is with his disciples, it is just before Passover, and what does he do?  He washes their feet.  It’s not the image we would expect.  This is far from the way we expect a leader, a person of power, a respected person to act.  To imagine washing somebody’s feet, you might think that it actually is kind of creepy.  The fact is, this was not uncommon in that culture.

To provide for foot washing was a common act of hospitality.  Travelers walked hot and dusty roads, and the host often offered water to guests so that they could wash their feet.  But the foot washing was generally done by the guests themselves – you washed your own feet.   It was self-service.  Or there might be a servant who would wash the feet of guests.  But here, Jesus combined the roles of host and servant.  He wrapped himself with a towel – taking on the uniform of a servant.  And then Jesus himself washed his disciples’ feet. 

This odd combination of roles is what Peter objects to.  Hosts do not wash the feet of guests.  Rabbis do not wash the feet of disciples.  Leaders do not act as servant to followers.  Jesus’ actions offended Peter’s sensibility.  And if we are honest, this offends our sensibility.  Because we aspire to be a success, we aspire to at least a certain level of social standing, and that does not mean taking the role of a servant.

The conversation that takes place between Peter and Jesus highlights the striking nature of the hospitality that Jesus provides for his disciples.  This really is a surprising action.

Some of you may have come from traditions that practice foot-washing.  Many Mennonite and Brethren groups practice foot-washing as an ordinance or regular practice, and Christians from a lot of different traditions may from time to time practice foot-washing during Holy Week in remembrance of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

Martin Copenhaver, who was the president at Andover-Newton Seminary, told about the conversation a parishioner had in a small store near the church.  She saw a man who looked vaguely familiar and asked, “Didn’t I wash your feet last Thursday?”  The man responded, “I think so, but it was rather dark, so I can’t be sure.”

She went on:  “I had never done anything like that before.  That’s why I was so nervous.”  He said, “Well, it was a first for me, also.”

Then they both became aware that the shopkeeper behind the counter looked both shocked and confused by what she was hearing.  Seeing this reaction, the parishioner rushed to reassure the shopkeeper:  “It’s not like it sounds.  We are both part of Village Church.  We do that kind of thing there.”  The explanation did not help.  The shopkeeper laughed nervously and then abruptly changed the subject.

Well, it is shocking, really, but then, we are following One who consistently shocked others by doing outrageous things - like washing his disciples’ feet, a lowly servant’s task.

It has been customary through the centuries for the Pope to commemorate Jesus washing the feet of his disciples by washing the feet of twelve priests at the Vatican each Holy Thursday.  Over time, it wasn’t so shocking anymore, but more like a beloved ritual.  But then came Pope Francis, who washes the feet of priests, yes, but also women and Muslims and people with disabilities and prisoners.  There are those who have been aghast at what they consider outrageous and inappropriate behavior, but it seems to me that Pope Francis understands what it is about – that with Jesus, leadership means servanthood.

Most of you are probably familiar with Mister Rogers.  Fred Rogers had a PBS television program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, for 31 years.  Some of you know that he was an ordained Presbyterian minister.  He was commissioned to do ministry with children through his television program.

In Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, there were make-believe characters like King Friday XIII and Lady Elaine Fairchild, and there were also “real” characters like Mr. and Mrs. McFeely and Handyman Negri.  A Story Corps interview aired on Natinal Public Radio with one of the cast of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.   Fred Rogers met François Clemmons in 1968 after hearing him sing at the church they both attended, near Pittsburgh.  He was so impressed with his voice that he asked him to join the show. 

At the time, François was a graduate student trying to get his singing career going.  He was reluctant to accept Fred’s offer.  But after realizing he would get paid to appear on the show—enabling him to afford his rent—François accepted.  He was the first African American actor to have a recurring role on a children’s television series.

Part of his reluctance was that he was going to play the role of Officer Clemmons.  He had personally had negative experiences with police, and had experienced firsthand the violence that civil rights protesters had suffered at the hands of law enforcement.  So he really wasn’t sure about this. 

But fairly early on, a scene from the show convinced him that he could help make a positive impact on society.  In one episode, he had been walking the beat all day, and Mister Rogers invited Officer Clemmons to sit down and rest.  Mister Rogers had his feet in a plastic wading pool and invited Officer Clemmons to take off his shoes and rest his feet in the pool.  So he does, and then when he gets out of the pool, Mister Rogers takes a towel and helps dry off Officer Clemmons’ feet.  Fred Rogers knew exactly what he was doing - it was a picture of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

This was 1969.  There was a thing about mixing races in pools.  Martin Luther King had recently been assassinated.  But here on this children’s program, there were black and white feet together in the pool, and Mister Rogers drying off Officer Clemmons’ feet.  After that episode, Mister Rogers was on the receiving end of outrage and hate mail. 

In the Story Corps interview, Francois continued:

I’ll never forget one day I was watching him film a session.  And you know how at the end of the program he takes his sneakers off, hangs up his sweater and he says, “You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are?”  I was looking at him when he was saying that, and he walks over to where I was standing.  And I said, “Fred were you talking to me?”  And he said, “Yes, I have been talking to you for years.  But you heard me today.”  It was like telling me I’m OK as a human being.  That was one of the most meaningful experiences I’d ever had.
Imagine that Jesus is not just washing the disciples’ feet.  Imagine that he is washing your feet.  Imagine that Jesus is looking right at you and saying to you, “I like you just the way you are.”

The call to follow Jesus is not a call to glitz and glamor.  It is not a call to fame and fortune.  It is not a call to popularity.  It is not a call to success, as the world defines success.  It is a call to service.  It is a call to love all of God’s children.  It is a call to probably get into some trouble, to probably offend some people somewhere along the line, because we are following One who got into trouble.

At the heart of Christian discipleship is service.  Next Saturday, we have a group who will be going on a mission trip to Oklahoma.  We will have fun, we will hopefully have some good food, we will enjoy being together, at least I expect that we will.  It’s not really a big sacrifice.  But it is about service.  We will be there to do what needs to be done.  Cleaning up the yard, hauling off debris, cleaning out storage areas, painting, doing fairly menial tasks – it’s not glamorous, but when we are serving we are asking, “What needs to be done?” and doing it.

Serving is doing what needs to be done for the sake of others.  And I see this over and over again.  In our church, I see folks who give of their time and effort, often in ways that go mostly unseen, to do what needs to be done.  I know that many of you serve in our community, serve in your neighborhood, make a real difference in the lives of friends and neighbors and family members and students and co-workers because you have hearts of service.

The thing about service is that it is something all of us can do.  Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve.  You only need a heart full of grace.  A soul generated by love.” 

The call to follow Jesus is a call to serve.  But there is also a flip-side to that.  For some of us, service comes fairly easily.  We enjoy serving others.  But if we have a need – whoa, that’s a different story.  We don’t want anyone doing for us.  We don’t need help.  We can take care of ourselves.  We are self-sufficient.

The fact is, we are all self-sufficient – until we’re not.  When we are unwilling to be on the receiving end, we are denying someone else the opportunity to serve.  And what we are really doing is keeping at arm’s length the possibility of relationship.

Peter was offended by the thought of Jesus washing his feet.  But once Jesus set him straight, Peter said, well, then not just my feet but my head and my hands too!  And Jesus said, the point is not the cleansing power of water.  It is the power of relationship.

The call to follow Jesus is a call to service.  But it is also a call to be willing to accept service from others.  We are all called to serve one another, and to serve all of God’s children.

We will receive communion this morning.  At times, we all come forward for communion, at times we may do it differently, but most often, we pass the plates of bread and trays of juice through the congregation.  A deacon may serve you, especially if you are on the end of a pew, but you may be the one to serve the person next to you.  The pastor and worship leader serve the deacons, but then a deacon also serves us.  You might think it is all just the choreography of the way we do communion, but behind it is this idea of all of us serving one another as we serve Jesus.  Amen.

“The Door” - February 25, 2018

Text: John 10:1-18

“The most important part of a church is the front door.”  This was the assessment of a distinguished church architect.

Not what we expect to hear someone say, is it?  If you had to name the most important part of the church building, what would you say?

Some would say that it is the nursery.  For new parents, the nursery is extremely important – the quality of the nursery can make or break whether they will come back to the church.

Or some might say the baptistry.  We’re a Baptist church, after all.

Or the Fellowship Hall.  It is used for meals, for receptions, for showers, for meetings, for all kinds of events.  Important stuff happens in the Fellowship Hall.

A person could make an argument for several different areas of the building as being the most important.  The bathrooms would get some votes and certainly the HVAC system –air conditioning is nice and the boiler, for all the pain it can be, is critical.

But if we were playing Family Feud and surveyed 100 parishioners, I have no doubt that the number one response would be the sanctuary.  This is where we worship, and worship is our reason for being.  This is where we gather week after week.

But this architect says no, the most important part of the building is the front door.  He said that because the front door is the first thing newcomers encounter about the church.  (Of course, with our parking lot, the back door is the first thing a lot of newcomers see, but we get the point.)

We are involved in a capital improvement campaign, and while functionality and basic maintenance has a lot to do with it, we are addressing some of those obvious ways that people first interact with our facilities.  We are re-doing the parking lot, and it needs it.  We are replacing carpeting that has a lot of mileage on it, not to mention too many coffee spills.  And we are replacing the back doors, which after many years are rusting, with rusted frames.

The doors say something about our church.  When the weather is decent, the front doors are often left open on a Sunday morning as a way of saying to those on the outside, “Come on in, you are welcome here.” 

When we put in new flooring several years ago, the fire doors to the stairwells had to be made a bit shorter.  I remember Jack and Delmar and Bob working hard to cut and grind down thick metal doors.  It wasn’t easy but it had to be done.

A door needs to fit – not only fit the size of the opening, which some of us amateur carpenters can have trouble with, but a door also needs to be fitting to the life that goes on inside. 

We have all been in that situation where you knock at an unfamiliar door and are not sure what you will find.  The story is told of the pastor who went out to visit a church member.  It was obvious that someone was home, but nobody came to the door, even though the pastor knocked several times.  Finally, the preacher took out his card, wrote “Revelation 3:20” on the back of it, and stuck it in the door.

Revelation 3:20 says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and dine with you, and you with me.”

The next Sunday, that card turned up in the collection plate.  Below the preacher’s message was written the following notation:  “I heard your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.” - Genesis 3:10

In today’s scripture, Jesus describes himself as “the door.”  While the other gospels are much more subtle about it, in John, Jesus makes many statements of this sort about himself.  In John we have Jesus saying, “I am the light of the world.”  “I am the true vine.”  “I am the bread of life.”  “I am the way and the truth and the life.”  “I am the resurrection and the life.”  In this passage, he goes on to say “I am the Good Shepherd,” but before he gets there, he says “I am the door.”  All of these images ask us to reflect on who Jesus is and how we think about Jesus.

As you came in this morning, you were asked to vote among various images of Jesus.  Which of these do you find most appealing?  Which do you like best?    We did this in the college class last Sunday and there was a suggestion that we have the whole church join in, so we did. 

There were a lot of responses, but the top vote-getters were teacher, friend, shepherd, and savior.  Shepherd is a familiar image in scripture – you’ve got Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd," as well as numerous New Testament passages.  And then there are many shepherd-type hymns.  But let’s face it: most of us are unfamiliar with sheep and with shepherding today, to say nothing of ancient Palestine.  Without these familiar scriptures and hymns, it is not necessarily an image that we would gravitate to.

And then there is “door.”  Door did not get a single vote.  It’s one of the ways that the Bible speaks of Jesus – here as a gate or a door, depending on your translation – but we don’t go around thinking, “Jesus is my door.”  We just don’t.   

While an architect might point out the importance of a door, we all know that we do not come to the church for the door – even for new ones.  A door is a means of getting to where you are going - not an end in itself.  What does it mean to say that Jesus is the door?  And why does Jesus speak of himself in that way?

You might think that Jesus is mixing metaphors too much.  Is he the door, or is he the shepherd?  What does it all mean?  If the disciples were a bit puzzled, we may be really puzzled.

Well, we are so far away from what it meant to be a shepherd in the time of Jesus that it may appear that something was lost in translation, but that’s not the case.  Often, the shepherd functionally was the door, or the gate, to the sheepfold.  There would be an enclosure for the sheep, but the enclosure did not always have an actual door.  The shepherd would sit, or lie down, at the opening.  To enter or exit, you had to get by the shepherd.  The shepherd knew who or what was coming and going and could serve as the protector of the sheep.

While in the fold, the shepherd would protect the sheep.  But they couldn’t stay in the fold indefinitely.  There wasn’t enough grass, there wasn’t enough food, there wasn’t enough space to roam.  The sheep could not live their lives in the fold.

We might think of Jesus as our door, our entrance, our way to God.  And that may be a helpful way to think about Jesus as the door.  But there is more.  The song “Hotel California” says, “You can enter any time you like, but you can never leave,” but most doors work both ways.  The traffic moves in both directions.  To say that Jesus is the door could also be a way of saying that Jesus is our way out into the world.

The shepherd protects the sheep in the fold, and then leads them out of the fold.  The text says that the shepherd brings them out and the sheep follow, but that is actually a pretty understated translation.  It’s really more like, “the shepherd propels them out” or “drives them out.”  The shepherd is not passive about bringing the sheep out of the fold.

Remember Psalm 23?  “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he leads me in the paths of righteousness.”  None of that involves being in the fold.  The shepherd is with us out in the world.

Now as we read this passage, a few questions come up.  It speaks of Jesus as the shepherd and others as bandits or thieves.  Who is he talking about?

We might take a moment to remember the previous passage, which we looked at last week.  In that story, Jesus heals a blind man but the Pharisees do not believe it.  Instead of celebrating that his man had been healed, they accuse him of being a fraud and a sinner, and they accuse Jesus of breaking Sabbath law by working and healing on the Sabbath.

In part, Jesus’ words – this figure of speech, as John puts it – is aimed at the Pharisee who had far greater concern for their own standing and power than they had for people in need.  They cared about themselves and not the sheep.  But not the Good Shepherd.  The Good Shepherd wants the best for the sheep – the best for us.  Jesus came to give us abundant life, meaningful life, life overflowing. 

Jesus also speaks of those who are not completely committed as far as caring for the sheep.  Hired hands are not willing to confront danger or sacrifice their own security and well-being for the sake of the sheep, at least not in the same way as the shepherd, because the sheep belong to the shepherd.

We know this to be true – we have all seen it.  Barbara Brown Taylor (in Bread of Angels, p. 80-81) told a story that illustrates the point very well.  Her husband Ed had been out duck hunting all day on the river with his friend Tommy.  They had a good day and it came time to pack up and head home.  They pulled the front of the boat up on the bank and made a couple of trips carrying equipment and guns and decoys back to the car.

On their second trip back to the boat, however, it was gone.  They saw it floating gently down the river.  So they ran along the riverbank, trying to catch up to it, getting scratched up by the underbrush, but the closer they got to the boat, the closer the boat moved toward the main current of the river.

It became obvious that somebody was going to have to jump in and swim to the boat.  And guess who did?  “It wasn’t my boat,” Ed said, but he did help by cheering Tommy on.

A good shepherd is one who has a bottom-line bond with the sheep.  The text speaks about being the owner, but you can own something without having legal title.  We can talk about owning up to something, or owning our feelings.  And we can have a depth of responsibility to another such that it is an abiding commitment.

Now this can get tricky, because we know that responsibility for another can become over-responsibility.  We may be counseled against getting too involved in other people’s problems.  For one, it’s none of our business, and then there is the whole issue of boundaries.  When we are too invested in solving other people’s problems, too willing to rescue others, it can hurt both.  It can keep the other person from taking responsibility for their own life and while we might enjoy being the hero, it can be a heavy burden.  In the long run we are not doing ourself or the other any favors.

This can all be true, but the fact is we all need someone in our lives who will absolutely be there for us.  Somebody who, when the boat is floating down the river, won’t hesitate to jump right in and go after it.  That is not co-dependence or over-identification with another; this is self-giving love.  That is the love that the shepherd has for us and the love that the shepherd teaches us. 

Now, there is another question that may arise from this story.  Well, maybe several more, but one more for this morning.  Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also.”  Where did that come from?

To go back to the door image: to say that Jesus is the door is to say that Jesus is the way, the path.  This is similar to his saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

If Jesus is the way, then he is our model.  To enter through the door is to follow Jesus’ way.  And what is Jesus’ way?  His is a way of love, of compassion, of self-sacrifice, of humility, of grace.  To say “we are the only real Christians” or “we are the only faithful people” seems to me to do violence to Jesus’ way.

When Jesus says that he has other flocks not in this fold means at the minimum that we don’t have all the truth and we are not the only faithful community.  It is important to know that by the time John wrote his gospel, there were a number of Christian communities who were not necessarily all alike.  It’s enough for us to do our best to follow Jesus’ without judging the way others follow.  Jesus is our door to God, and we don’t need to use this door to keep others out.

This morning, we might think about our church doors in a slightly different way.  We are gathered in through these doors so that we might connect with the love and grace and strength and care of the shepherd.  The doors are to be open doors – ready to welcome other sheep.

But the doors work both ways, and after gathering, we are sent out by the shepherd to follow the shepherd – into the neighborhood, into our schools, into our jobs, into our homes, into the world.  And what are we called to do?  Wesley Frensdorf, an Episcopal bishop in Nevada, said that he dreamed of a church in which “all sheep share in the shepherding.”  That’s our calling: to care for and love and protect and guide and teach one another.

The school shooting in Parkland, Florida, just the last in a long line of mass shootings, has brought about a lot of conversation - some much-needed national conversation as well as a lot of individual converstions.  Marissa Schimmoeller is a 9th and 10th grade English teacher in Ohio.  She dreaded going to school the day after the Florida shooting.  And sure enough, a student in her class asked, “Mrs. Schimmoeller, what will we do if a shooter comes in your room?”

She launched into her pre-planned speech, but then she had to say the hardest part.  “I want you to know that I care deeply about each and every one of you.  I will do all I can to protect you, but being in a wheelchair, I cannot protect you the same way that an able-bodied teacher can.  If there is a chance for you to escape, I want you to go.  Do not worry about me.  Your safety is my number one priority.”

Imagine having to say that to your class.  Her words slowly sank in.  But then, slowly, another student raised her hand.  “Mrs. Schimmoeller, we have already talked about it.  If anything happens, we are going to carry you.”

Those students understood.  WHen we are following the Good Shepherd, all sheep share in the shepherding.  Amen.

Thanks to William Willimon’s meditation on this text in Pulpit Resource, April-June 2005, p.13ff.

“I Once Was Blind but Now I See” - February 11, 2018

Text: John 9:1-34

Jesus and the disciples are traveling when they notice a blind man.  This was apparently someone known in the community and known to the disciples, because they are aware that he has been blind from birth.  Upon seeing this man, the disciples ask Jesus what seems to be a strange question.  Who sinned?

What kind of question is that?  You see a blind person and the question is, “Who sinned?”  Well, in that day the question actually made sense.  It was commonly accepted that those who suffer do so because of sin.  That was not really in question.  The question was, whose sin?  Since the man was blind from birth, was his blindness because of his parents’ sin, or was he some sort of pre-natal sinner who right from the start was a flawed person?

That seems like a bizarre and completely inappropriate question, but we might want to pause before criticizing too much.  We can play the same game.  In our own way, we maintain the suffering-sin connection that they had in Jesus’ day. 

In all of the health care debate over the past year, there was the assertion made that sick people should have to pay more for insurance because they have not kept their bodies healthy – they  have not lived healthy lifestyles and basically just have themselves to blame.  Certainly, lifestyle affects our health, but I thought of my friend Caleb, 7 years old with Type I diabetes.  Was it his fault that his health care costs are higher? 

There is still this notion that people bring misfortune upon themselves and can even be to blame for illness.  And then we can still wrestle with how responsible parents are for the behavior of children.  Some argue that it is up to the parents to raise their children properly and instill the right values, so if children act up, it is at least partly the parents’ fault and they should be held responsible. 

Others argue that while parents obviously have a lot to do with the way their children turn out, as a parent you can do all the right things and a child can still have problems and get into trouble.  In our 21st century way, we are still having this same conversation they had in the first century.

A few years ago a man named Jerry Farrell had a teenaged son who threw a beer party.  Since he was underaged, the boy and his friends broke the law.  But the police didn’t arrest just the teens.  They went after Jerry too.  He was arrested, fingerprinted, and charged.

Farrell was shocked.  “I hadn’t done anything wrong,” he complained.  “I didn’t even know [my son] had friends over.”

Lack of knowledge about the drinking did not get Farrell off.  Under a parental responsibility law in his community, whether or not a parent knows his or her child broke a law doesn’t matter.  The parent is held accountable.

A man is born blind.  “Who sinned?” Jesus is asked.  “Who is at fault here?”  It’s not really so much different from our day.  But Jesus says that to ask questions such as these is to get sidetracked.  “Who sinned?” is the wrong question.   Whether this man was blind because of his sin or his parents’ was the wrong question.

The answer to who sinned, says Jesus, is neither.  Jesus says that “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  What mattered was that here was a child of God, and Jesus could help him to see.  Jesus is not into blame, he is into possibility.  Jesus is not about heaping on guilt, he is about healing. 

And so instead of speculating or theologizing about why this man was born blind or who was responsible for the condition he was in, Jesus acted.  He healed him.

And I loved the way he did it.  I have to say that this story of Jesus spitting on the ground, making some mud, and rubbing it on the guy’s eyes, is just an awesome story.

Some Christian traditions use a tangible, physical act in prayer for healing by anointing a person with oil when praying for their healing – you can find encouragement to do that in James chapter 5.  I have attended healing services, even Baptist healing services, in which those who would like prayer for healing have oil anointed on their forehead and someone prays with them.  It’s not that common in our tradition, but it’s not unheard of.

And then we have Ash Wednesday.  A number of you were here on Wednesday night when we had ashes mixed with a little oil placed on our forehead in the sign of a cross.  It was a sign of our mortality and humanity and our commitment to follow Jesus. 

But Jesus takes this quite a bit further.  Oil is one thing, Ash Wednesday is one thing. To have someone spit in the mud and then rub it on our eyes – that is something else entirely.

It sounds really weird, but it was believed in that day that there was healing power in saliva, especially from a righteous person – so this was not completely unprecedented.  Jesus told the man to wash in the pool of Siloam.  And the man came back able to see.

It was an amazing story.  A man blind from birth is healed.  John saw this as a sign of Jesus’ messiahship.  We would expect people to rejoice.  We would expect celebration.  But that’s not what happened.

His neighbors couldn’t believe it was the same person.  “Yeah, he looks like Joe and he talks like Joe, but it can’t be him, because Joe is blind.”  For his part, the man kept insisting that it was really him--he had been healed.  They asked how it had happened, and he said, “Well, this man Jesus made mud and put it on my eyes and told me to go wash.”  They asked where Jesus was, and he told them that he didn’t know.

This was serious, so they brought him to the Pharisees, the religious authorities.  They were not only doubtful, they were upset because this had all taken place on the Sabbath.  As it turns out, Jesus had broken the Sabbath law.  Twice, at least.  First, he had worked on the Sabbath by making mud.  And then, he had healed on the Sabbath.  On the Sabbath, medical attention could only be given in case a life was in danger.

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man cannot be of God because he breaks the Sabbath.”  Others said, “How could a sinner perform such signs?”  There were questions about Jesus’ background and qualifications, and the Pharisees thought it best to do a little digging, a little investigating.  You know, people are not always who they say they are.  This was clearly the case with Jesus, they thought.

We have seen plenty of cases where someone misrepresents their background.  College coaches have been fired for making up degrees.  The Pharisees look at Jesus’ resume and assume that something funny is going on.  They asked the man who was purportedly healed.  “Who is this Jesus?” they ask.  “What do you say?”  He told them that he thought Jesus was maybe a prophet.

This was obviously going nowhere so they called in the man’s parents.  They gave an honest answer.  They said, yes, he is our son, yes, he has been blind from birth, but no, we don’t know how he now sees or who did this.  They were careful not to say anything about Jesus because apparently they could be drummed out of the synagogue if they spoke too highly of him.  So they said, “Our son is a big boy, he’s a grownup, he’s of age, why don’t you ask him?”

So once again they called in the man who had been blind.  Speaking of Jesus, they said, “We know this man is a sinner.”  He said, “I don’t know about that, but one thing I do know - that though I was blind, now I can see.”

“I once was blind, but now I see.”  I love that response.  He doesn’t argue, he doesn’t theologize, he doesn’t try to assign motivation or cause or get into some big explanation of the mechanics of how it all happened.  He doesn’t agree or disagree with the Pharisees; he doesn’t take sides.  He simply shares his own experience - which is a great model for how we are to bear witness to our faith.  “I once was blind, but now I see.”

Last week we looked at the Samaritan woman at they well, and her testimony was similar.  She didn’t argue with people, she simply told about her experience and then said, “Come and see this man Jesus.”  What does this man do?  He just tells his story.

When we share with others about our faith, this is really the way to do it – not by making big, sweeping, theological claims but simply sharing our own experience.  The man born blind does not try to explain how it had taken place or what it all might mean.  “I don’t know if he is a sinner,” he says.  “All I know is, I once was blind but now I see.”

This is not the kind of answer the Pharisees were looking for.  How did it happen?  What did Jesus do?

And then comes maybe the best part of the story.  The man who had been blind said, “I’ve already told you, but you won’t listen.  Why do you keep asking?  Do you want to be his disciples too?”

That did not go over well with the Pharisees.  But he went on, and this beggar, this man who had been blind, winds up teaching the Pharisees.  He said, “Here is an astonishing thing--you don’t know where he comes from, but just look at what he does.  God does not listen to sinners, but to those who obey God’s will.  Apart from God, this man could do nothing.”

That was it.  “You were born entirely in your sins,” the Pharisees said – they were not averse to name calling – “and now you are trying to teach us.  Get out of here!”  This man had been healed, but instead of celebrating with him, the Pharisees grilled him and then ran him off.

This story is about blindness and sight, but it is not so much about physical sight.  Seeing is really a metaphor for understanding.  As we read the story, it is clear that the one who was blind can see clearly--not only with physical eyes, but he can see spiritually.  He has understanding.  He describes Jesus as a man first, then as a prophet, and then he is called a disciple.  Meanwhile the Pharisees, who have everything figured out, turn out to be the ones who are really blind – they are without understanding.  God is clearly at work, and they cannot even recognize it.

Jesus’ work in healing the man who was blind and that man’s testimony should have allowed the Pharisees to see that he was from God.  But they simply would not or could not see.  They were the ones who were really blind.

The story is about this man and the Pharisees, but it is about more than that.  It is really about us.  It is really an invitation to examine our own lives and to ask if we have blind spots.  Are we really paying attention?  Are we really open to the work of God?

Timothy Haut, a pastor in Connecticut, wrote a beautiful poem about really seeing:

Once I saw a bird
But I did not see
A soaring, feathered song
Rose-breasted and alive,
Rejoicing at the dawn.
Once I saw a tree,
But I did not see
A billion green cells
Devouring the golden sunlight
As they quiver in leafy splendor,
Reaching toward heaven’s brightness.
Once I saw a face pass by,
But I did not see
A holy child, brave, unfettered,
The eyes seeking loveliness and love,
The sweet lips that have kissed away hurt--
The lips that speak my name--
The lines of weariness, etched by sorrow,
Wrinkling when you smile.
I did not see you,
Nor any of this world’s wonders,
Until you touched my eyes,
Opened my senseless heart.
I was blind but now I see.
 This morning, most of us could stand to have our spiritual eyes opened a little wider.  To keep with the metaphor, maybe we need to have the mud washed away.  We might choose to look for the good, look for the beautiful, look for God at work around us.  We might choose to look for the possibilities and potential and gifts that are in others – and in ourselves.  We might be open to the possibility that God is doing a new thing. 

We might choose not to get caught up in pursuing those things that are not truly essential, but to focus on what really matters.  The man was asked a lot of questions, confronted with a lot of speculation.  For his part, he knew what was important.  “All I know is this: I once was blind, but now I see.”  Amen.

“God So Loved the World” - February 4, 2018

Text: John 3:14-21

Today is Super Bowl Sunday.  The New England Patriots always seem to be in the Super Bowl, and to be honest I’m getting a little tired of it, but I think the story here is the Philadelphia Eagles.  They were pretty mediocre, with losing records the last couple of seasons, but last year their rookie quarterback, Carson Wentz, showed promise.  I had actually seen him play in college.  I went with Wallace Sanders to see Iowa State play North Dakota State.  North Dakota State is in a lower division than ISU, but they are always great.  They had a bunch of fans here in Ames and with quarterback Carson Wentz, they beat the Cyclones.  So I drafted him for my fantasy football team this year. 

Wentz had a spectacular season and helped me to finish first in my fantasy league, but he tore a ligament in his knee and was lost for the season.  It looked like the Eagles’ playoff aspirations were over, but with their backup journeyman quarterback, Nick Foles, they managed to make it to the Super Bowl.

(Person in congregation holds up John 3:16 sign)  OK, OK, I’ll get to John 3:16.

It seems that every year at the Super Bowl, some guy hold up a sign that says “John 3:16.”  I guess the person holding the sign up expects that everybody will know it.  Although presumably, the intended audience is people who need to know Jesus, people who may be completely unfamiliar with the Bible.  Some probably would not know John 3:16 from John Deere or John F. Kennedy, but whatever. 

Now it is true that John 3:16 is probably the best-known verse in the Bible.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him (I memorized it in King James) shall not perish but have everlasting life.”

When we read the context surrounding this verse, there is some weird stuff going on, particularly in verse 14.  “… Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” 

Most of us have not memorized that verse.  It refers to a strange and obscure story in Numbers about a time when after the Israelites escaped out of Egypt, the people started complaining about all of the hardships, and about then there was an outbreak of poisonous snakes.  It was the conviction of the people that God had sent these snakes because of their complaining, so they asked Moses to pray for them.  God told Moses to make a snake and put it on a pole.  So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole, and whenever someone was bit by a snake, they were to look at this snake on a stick and they would be healed.
The comparison drawn is that just as those who looked at the snake lifted up would find healing, those who look to Jesus on the cross will likewise find healing.

Many of us are familiar with John 3:16.  We often relate to this verse in terms of how – it tells us how we are to come to faith, how we are to come to eternal life - by believing in Jesus.  This morning, I would like for us to think about this most familiar of verses in terms of the why question.  Why does God send Jesus?  Why does God provide salvation?    The answer to the why question is, “God so loved the world.”

We need to hear these words more than ever.  Some of us were privileged to attend the NAACP banquet this week.  Aiddy Phomvisay was the guest speaker.  As part of his presentation, he told his own family’s story, of coming here as a child in 1979 as part of Gov. Ray’s outreach to refugees from Southeast Asia.  He told about some of the bigotry and prejudice his family faced.  And he said that as they stepped off the plane at the Des Moines airport, nobody would have guessed that these little kids would grow up to be an attorney, an architect, a humanitarian, an educator and principal.  That family’s story has been repeated time and again, and unless you are a Native American, at some point that was the story of all of our families. 

But for some reason, we can have a hard time remembering that God loves the world – all of it.  In our fear we can easily retreat into the idea that God loves us, and while God might love others, it is probably not as much as God loves us.  There is a long history of signing God up to cheer for one’s own side.  It’s funny, but in wars, everybody seems to think that God is on their side.  And that includes wars of words.

It is the conviction of our faith that God created the world, indeed, God created us and everything in this world.  Even those snakes – whether you put the snake on a stick or not, God created it.  God created the continents and the oceans, the mountains, the forests, all the plant life – corn and soybeans as well as daffodils and honeysuckle.  God created the birds and the fish and deer and chipmunks and you and me.

God created this world, and God loves this world.  Not just parts of it, all of it.  God so loved the world.  Why did God take on human flesh?  Why was Jesus born and walk this earth and heal and teach and love?  God so loved the world.  Why did Jesus die on the cross?  Because God so loved the world.

Peter Arnett was a CNN television commentator and reporter.  He told about being in a small town on the West Bank, when a bomb exploded.  Bloodied people were everywhere. A man came running up to him, holding a little girl in his arms.  He pleaded with Peter to take her to a hospital--as a member of the press he would be able to get through the security cordon.  So Peter, the man and the girl jumped into his car and rushed to the hospital.  The whole time the man was pleading with him to hurry, to go faster, heartbroken at the thought the little girl might die.

Sadly the little girl’s injuries were too great and she died on the operating table. When the doctor came out to give them the news the man collapsed in tears.  Peter Arnett was at a loss for words. “I don’t know what to say.  I can’t imagine what you must be going through.  I’ve never lost a child.”

It was then that the man said, “Oh, that girl was not my daughter.  I’m an Israeli settler.  She was a Palestinian.  But there comes a time when each of us must realize that every child, regardless of that child’s background, is a daughter or a son.  There must come a time when we realize that we are all family.” (story told by Tony Campolo).

That man understood that God loves the whole world. 

Robert Coles is a child psychiatrist, now an Emeritus Professor at the Harvard Med School.  Coles has done a lot of research on children under stress.  Back in 1960, he was put in charge of a psychiatric hospital in Biloxi, Mississippi.  One day, while in New Orleans, he passed by a school where there were a bunch of demonstrators.  He discovered that these people were protesting that an African-American child named Ruby Bridges was allowed to go to the school.  She was escorted each day to and from school by federal marshals to ensure her safety because the local police would not protect her from the crowds who yelled and screamed and threatened this six year old girl.

There was more.  The school had been totally boycotted by the white population.  Ruby was the only African-American student.  So as the school year began, here was a six-year-old black child going to a school all by herself.   This is part of our American history.

Coles was interested in doing a study of the social stress Ruby was facing.  With the help of Thurgood Marshall and Kenneth Clark, a black psychologist that he knew in New York, Coles eventually was able to make contact with Ruby’s family.  Twice a week, he would go to visit, sometimes with his wife.  He would ask Ruby how she was doing, and she always said, “I’m doing fine.”  He talked to her mother and found that Ruby was sleeping well, her appetite was good, she had fun playing with her friends, she was learning to read and enjoyed that, she didn’t seem to be anxious or upset.  This went on for months.  Coles thought at first that everyone was in denial, that this was their coping mechanism, but it went on.  A few months later, Ruby’s teacher told him that she couldn’t understand how the child could be so happy and cheerful after facing the mobs, 50-75 people, twice a day, every day she went to school.

Ruby lived in poverty.  Her parents were illiterate – they couldn’t even write their own names.  They worked long hours at menial jobs for little pay.  They were going through tremendous strain.  And yet, Ruby seemed better adjusted than the children of well-to-do parents facing significantly less stress that Coles saw in Boston all the time.  He couldn’t figure it put.

Then one day, the teacher told Coles that she had seen Ruby talking to the people on the street.  He followed up when he visited Ruby’s home that night.  “Ruby, your teacher told me she saw you talking to people on the street.”

“Oh, I wasn’t talking to them,” she said.  “I was just saying a prayer for them.”

“Ruby, you pray for the people there?” “Oh, yes.”  “Why do you do that?”  “Because they need praying for.” 

Ruby’s mother came into the room--she had overheard the conversation.  “We tell Ruby that it’s important that she pray for the people.”  She said that Ruby prayed for them all every night.  Ruby had been told in Sunday School to pray for the people.  Coles discovered that the pastor at their Baptist church also prayed for these people.  Publicly.  Every Sunday.

Ruby told him that the minister said that Jesus went through a lot of trouble and that Jesus said about the people who were causing trouble, “Forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.”

She was six years old.  Six years old.  And better than most of us, she understood that God loves the whole world.

We could all learn a lot from Ruby Bridges.  Instead of demonizing those who are different, instead of thinking of other nations as enemies to be feared and defeated, what if we thought of them as part of this world that God loves?

Now, back to that John 3:16 sign.  I’ll be watching the Super Bowl today, and I won’t be surprised if while one of the teams is kicking an extra point, somebody in the end zone holds up that John 3:16 sign.  (They are playing in Minnesota, so an usher will probably be nice and let him take that sign into the stadium.)  Now, as far as I can tell this is done as a form of evangelism, but as said before, I think the guy with the sign makes a miscalculation: you have to already be familiar with the Bible for it to mean anything. 

So maybe the sign isn’t the best idea, but it has got me to wondering if there are other places where such a sign, maybe a sign that says, “God loves the whole world,” ought to be held up.  Like that snake held up on a stick, maybe we need to be holding up the idea that God loves the world.

As our Congress deliberates, and our State legislature and City council meets, maybe we need to hold up a sign, “God Loves the Whole World.”

As we watch news shows, with talking heads arguing back and forth, maybe someone needs to hold up a sign behind the commentators, “God Loves the Whole World.”

As we make decisions that impact the environment – our land and water and air, our climate – as we make decisions that affect future generations, maybe somebody needs to hold up a sign, “God Loves the Whole World.”

As we think about children out there who may not be our own children, we need to be reminded that yes, they are our children – and we need to hold up a sign, “God Loves the Whole World.”

As we make purchases and deposit checks and make decisions about what to do with our money, maybe somebody needs to hold up a sign for us, “God Loves the Whole World.”

Taking John 3:16 seriously – taking the message of Jesus seriously – moves us from Me to We.  It moves us from concern for ourselves and those just like us to concern for others, concern for those who may be very different from us.

I think of the early Baptists, a persecuted minority who struggled for the right to worship as their conscience dictated.  Because of that history, because of that experience, they argued passionately for the rights of all people, even people they did not personally agree with.  Those days are in our distant past, and I’m afraid we have lost some of that conviction.  We need to be reminded that God loves the whole world.

It’s not just a sign to hold up at the Super Bowl.  We need to put a sign on our desks, and post it on our refrigerators, and have it dangling from our rear view mirrors, and most of all just get it into our heads: God loves the whole world.

You.  Me.  Friends.  Enemies.  Neighbors.  Strangers.  Old.  Young.  Men.  Women.  Gay.  Straight.  Republican.  Democrat.  Christian, Jewish, Muslim.  American.  Haitian.  Iraqi.  All of us.  No exceptions.

God so loved the world.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.