Being Seen

Inspired by John 9:1-41

Another profound story from the Gospel of John. And just as a reminder, when we started these stories from John a few Sunday’s ago, and we still have another next week, I had highlighted for you just how fundamental these stories are to both our faith and the faith of newcomers to the church in the first century. And that these stories hold fundamental truths for all our journeys of faith, not just newcomers. So I wanted to remind you of that as we continue in John’s Gospel this Lent, as you allow these stories to work on you, to form your faith, wherever you may be on your journey. But before we get into today’s story, I want to point out some downright bad theology found at the beginning of this story.

It begins with Jesus’ disciples asking, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” Now they are working from the assumption that someone had indeed sinned for this guy to be born blind. In other words, he was born blind and it was someone’s fault. That was part of their theology. For them, that was how God worked.

When someone was born with a “defect,” and I put that in quotes because not all people born blind consider themselves to have anything “wrong” with them, but when someone was born with what we often call a defect, they believed that was God handing out a consequence, a judgement, a punishment for someone’s bad behavior. And apparently God would even hand out those punishments at birth for future bad behavior!

This is how God operated for them. It’s fascinating really. What a different relationship they had with God. So Jesus answers them and to tell you the truth, his answer leaves a lot to be desired. I have some serious issues with Jesus here. He starts out fine, he says, “Neither he nor his parents.” Period. He could have just ended there and it would have been fine! But no, he has to go on and say, “This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him.” So, what, God won’t punish people in this way but if God wants to show off God’s power then yes, God will make you blind at birth? We don’t believe that! Or, maybe you do, I’ll stick to I statements, I don’t believe that for a second! That is not how I imagine our relationship with God works.

So the reasons why Jesus may have said this either belong in another sermon, or better yet a bible study or better still a conversation. I don’t want to take up any more sermon time with this I just wanted to acknowledge that if something about Jesus answer didn’t sit right with you, it’s for good reason, and that is more than OK. But let’s move on. Our story today was another long one. Though John was a profound writer, he was also a wordy one. And due to its length, there is so many directions we could go with this, so many things we could talk about. So let’s start with the obvious, and move to what may not be so obvious from this story.

Our sense of sight. This is front and center throughout this entire story. I didn’t count but it is referenced in almost every sentence of this story! Clearly, Jesus and John want us to be thinking about our sense of sight as the foundation of what Jesus is trying to teach here. So, let’s just talk about our sense of sight briefly. It’s a sense that we use all the time. Most of us probably take it for granted, until of course when we begin to lose it.

And, though I’m not a biologist, I have a hunch we use it in ways we don’t even realize. I won’t ask for a show of hands but I bet a great many of you were a bit unnerved by the fact that I stood behind you when I read the Gospel story and therefore couldn’t see me? Let’s just say there were some outward signs, some of you were squirming a bit in your seat, didn’t quite know what to do, some even tried to turn around!

Why? I mean, the reading of scripture in worship is a listening exercise, not a seeing exercise, right? Thanks to the technology of our wireless mics, no matter where I stand you can hear me just the same. And seeing me doesn’t make you hear any better. Now, of course this is assuming your hearing is good and you’re not also relying in lip reading to help you hear. If that is your situation then please accept my deepest apologies. But aside from that, why the discomfort in not being able to see me as I read? I’ll let you chew on that on your own, if it indeed had that effect on you. Let’s turn our attention to the beautiful image that I have displayed on the screen for you.

If not being able to see me read the Gospel story was annoying, I can only imagine how you’re reacting to this blurry image! With a show of hands, how many of you thought there was something wrong with the projector? Now raise your hand if you’d like to see the clear, in-focus version of this picture? OK. Then I’m just full of disappointment for you today then! There is no other version of this picture! Sorry to disappoint you! I’m sure it’s not the first time I’ve disappointed you and I guarantee it’s not the last! But why did this bother you so? Why the strong urge to see this image in focus? What is that about exactly? More for you to chew on, on your own this week.

Because now I want to turn the tables on you a bit and give you a different perspective. So far, our exploration of our sense of sight has been self-centered, has been “me” oriented. Which is natural for us humans, that’s our default perspective. How is this affecting me? What am I getting out of this? What am I not getting out of this. I, I, I, me, me, me.

Because when we first saw this photo, I’m guessing that none of us, thought to ask how it must have been for that person in the photo, to not be seen. Our focus, by nature, was on ourselves, “I can’t see this photo.” Rather than, “That person in the photo can’t be seen.” The man born blind from our story could now see! Which was wonderful and amazing! But before he could be healed, before he could see, he had to be seen.

And Jesus saw him. Now, the man had been seen his whole life, probably on the street as a beggar, as passersby had to walk around him as they went about their business. But Jesus saw him in a way that no one had before. Not only did Jesus see him as a fellow human being with needs, but also as a person of value and worth who belonged in community worth others, someone who, in spite of his need, also had a lot to offer. And in order to see all of that, Jesus had to look deeper than the exterior, deeper than the messy, dirty, blind beggar sitting on the side of the street. Jesus saw him, really saw him.

Which begs the question, how well is our own sight? Clearly, Jesus wants us to ask ourselves this. Clearly, by sharing this story John wants us to work on our own sight. But not just for our own sake or for our own good, but for the sake of the world. Our work, even when it involves improving ourselves, is always for the sake of the world. So, who in our world needs to be seen but isn’t? How deep are we looking when we look at people; those who are strangers as well as those who are strange to us; especially those who are very different than us on the exterior?

Now here’s the good news. No matter how bad our sight is, God’s sight is perfect. And not only is God’s sight perfect, God sees you. And I don’t mean in a “sees you when your sleeping and knows when your awake” Santa Claus kind of way. One of our prayers that we have been using on Wednesday evenings during Prayer Around the Cross begins, “God of mercy, you know us better than we know ourselves, and still you love us.” So much grace in that little statement. God sees you, God sees all of what makes you, you; all your beauty and all your imperfections, and still God loves you. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Life-Changing Conversations

Inspired by John 4:5-42

One of my favorite theologians, Dr. Karoline Lewis, who is a professor at Luther Seminary, had some profound thoughts on today’s Gospel lesson, which I would like to share with you today. Not only were they profound but they synced very nicely with my sermon from last Sunday. She wrote an article called Holy Conversations, which I thought was about last week’s story of Nicodemus. Nicodemus’s conversation with Jesus in the dark of night was indeed a holy conversation, as he courageously asked Jesus some questions and then remained open to the answers as he listened to Jesus. And today we have yet another, holy conversation—this time between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at a well.

But first, I want to correct a long-held interpretation of this story that quite frankly comes from the long-held misogynistic perspectives from within the church for 2000 years. This woman was not a loose woman, was not easy, was not an adulterer, was not sexually immoral, or any of the others words or phrases that have been assigned to her. And you know what, why beat around the bush? She was not a slut. Oh, pastor, why such language? And in church! Well, I’ll tell you why, because this poor woman has been abused by the church for 2000 years, and by extension all women, and the only way to make that stop is to call it what it is.

So here’s the truth about the Samaritan woman at the well. Odds are, she was medically unable to have children. Barren, is what biblical writers would have called it, all males by the way, but even that term, barren, has sexist undertones. As if a woman loses some of her worth if she cannot have children. We also use that word barren to describe the wilderness and the desert.

So, she was probably divorced by those five men because of her inability to have children, but let’s also call that what it was, she was probably abandoned by those five husbands. And not just abandoned by those five husbands but also abandoned by the community. There was such a close tie to God’s favor and child-rearing, and God’s curse and “barrenness” that there was a fear of even associating with such a person, as if it would rub off on you if you came too close.

This is the state in which we find the woman at the well—in a state of community-imposed shame, disconnectedness, and low self-worth. And then Jesus comes along and has this private, personal, quite intimate conversation with her, someone she has never met before! Intimate because of the nature and content of the conversation but also because of the location—Jacob’s Well. So let me tell you how wells work in biblical stories, that’s where love connections happened. Think of it this way, in movies, when two characters accidently walk into each other and drop whatever they were carrying and scramble to pick it all up and then their eyes meet on the way back up, without any dialogue you know, this is headed in a romantic direction right? We’ve seen this a hundred times.

That was how the well was used in the Bible. That’s how Zipporah met her future husband Moses. That’s how Rachel met her future husband Jacob. One theologian called the well the Tinder of the Bible, the dating-website of biblical times! Now, I’m not suggesting that Jesus and this woman were romantic but let’s also remember that our author John was no fool, every detail of his Gospel is there for a reason.

So this location is certainly meant to conjure up all these stories of intimacy that began at a well. And I think one of the things that John was trying to get at here with this imagery is the close relationship that Jesus yearns for. And as I’ve mentioned in the past, the Bible is chock full of comparisons between our relationship with God and the love between couples. Take a look at Song of Songs and tell me I’m wrong. Talk about intimate!

And by relationship I don’t mean in the “you must have a personal relationship with Jesus in order to be saved” kind of way. Or in the “Jesus is your bro” kind of way. John is more than hinting at a deeper, closer kind of relationship with Jesus than that. But that isn’t even the most important part, it’s how the deeper relationship comes about between this woman and Jesus—through conversation—holy conversation as Dr. Lewis puts it. And she mentions five characteristics of this conversation that I thought were just too good not to share directly with you—especially as we contemplate this Lent on our own relationship with God but also with other human beings. So be thinking of how these five characteristics might influence both those kinds of  relationships.

The first is that the conversation begins with “mutual vulnerability.” Christ comes to her thirsty. And do you notice the irony there? The giver of living water is thirsty. Jesus, the Christ, the messiah, the savior of the world, God incarnate, is thirsty. A whole sermon could be written on that alone! And she comes to him in need of the living water that only he can provide, and is not ashamed to say so. Their mutual vulnerability sparks a life-changing conversation. Have you ever noticed in a conversation with a group of people, whether it’s at work or in a bible study or devotion, that as soon as one person opens up and allows themselves to be vulnerable, that vulnerability becomes a domino effect, and then one by one others become vulnerable! Funny how that works isn’t it?

The second characteristic is the questioning nature of the woman. Much like Nicodemus, it is her questions that keep the conversation moving and flowing and allow for something amazing to be revealed. It is in the questioning that the relationship forms and becomes closer still. And notice that Jesus accepts all her questions, even when she pushes back on him. They don’t faze him. He invites those questions, of her and of us.

How often do you hear someone say, “I just don’t understand how he could say such a thing?” Or, “I just don’t understand how she could do such a thing?” I hear it all the time and I have to bite my tongue each time because what I want to say is, “Have you tried to understand?” “Have you asked a question to help you understand?” The reality is, there’s a lot of judgment inherent in any statement that begins with, “I just don’t understand…” This quote from the book A Wrinkle In Time is a popular meme on social media, “I don't understand it any more than you do, but one thing I've learned is that you don't have to understand things for them to be.”

The third characteristic of this conversation is time. Conversations like this, the kind that foster understanding and deep relationship, take time. You may have noticed that this was quite a long Gospel reading, and we didn’t even read it all believe it or not! They take time and they also take intentionality, and more often than not, they take multiple conversations. But if we’re serious about fostering the relationship, whether it’s between us and God or us and other people, we will take the time, and it will be worth the time.

The fourth characteristic of this conversation is the element of surprise. When you begin to ask questions, especially the kind with the intentional purpose of building and deepening a relationship, you have no idea what you’re gonna get! And if you think you do, expect to be surprised. This woman was the first person that Jesus revealed his true identity to, when he said, “I AM— the one who speaks with you.” “I AM” being the name of God from the Hebrew scriptures as revealed to Moses at the burning bush. Talk about a surprise! And not just to her, but to every male reader of this book over the centuries.

And the fifth and final characteristic of this conversation is, like last week, the openness to being changed by the conversation and its ensuing relationship. Dr. Lewis writes, “The woman at the well goes from shamed to witness. From dismissed to disciple. From alone to being a sheep of Jesus’ own fold.” When we take the time to ask vulnerable questions, and are not afraid of surprising answers, to build and foster relationships through holy conversations, we will be changed, we will not walk way the same people. And thanks be to God for that. Amen.


Courage, Questions, and Change, Oh My!

Inspired by John 3:1-17

Today we begin four Sunday’s in a row in the Gospel of John. Now, you may remember that John is not my favorite Gospel, but these four stories that we are going to hear this Lent from John’s Gospel are some of the greatest in all of scripture. These are just the best of the best from John’s Gospel. If he released a greatest hits album these would be it! So much so, in fact, that these four stories were central in the early church for those who were being newly welcomed into the church.

So, it is fitting that Bethlehem has reignited the Journey of Faith this year. These are the stories that the early church wanted those new to a congregation to really sink their teeth into and take their time chewing and digesting them. These are the stories that held fundamental truths to our faith for them, and so it also very fitting to hear them during Lent, when we all take a step back and contemplate our own journeys of faith.

If I had been there, I think I would have gone up to Jesus and said, “Hey, I know you and I will have plenty of time to talk, so can I steal Nicodemus from you for a bit, I really want to talk to him.” That’s how much I’m enamored by this character Nicodemus! And, of course, Jesus would forgive me, because…Jesus. But I have so many questions to ask Nicodemus, because there is so much about him that I admire.

And, more importantly, there is so much about him that is helpful to our faith. There are attributes of Nicodemus that are essential to our faith. And I think that’s one of the reasons why this story was so important to this little Jewish sect 2000 years ago that sparked a new religion. So, I want to share three of those attributes today.

The courage of Nicodemus. Now, I think Nicodemus gets a bad rap because John pointed out that he came to Jesus at night, meaning in the dark, meaning when no one could see him, specifically his fellow Pharisees. And the assumption there is that this was an act of cowardice. I disagree. Especially because I don’t hear of any other Pharisees coming to Jesus to have a deep conversation, whether in the night or daylight. There are stories of Pharisees coming to Jesus to trap him, to get him to answer a question the wrong way so that he can be arrested. There were Pharisees that came to Jesus to insult him, or mock him. But there are no stories that have a character like Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus to have an honest conversation.

And seriously, how secret could this meeting have really been, even in the dark of night? We also know that there were many spies sent to constantly keep an eye on Jesus, waiting for him to make a mistake. Nicodemus knew, that at some point, this would get back to his colleagues. But there times in all our lives when you realize there are more important things than our own reputation. And I think that’s where we find Nicodemus at this point in his journey of faith. This conversation with Jesus was just too important to be worrying about what his fellow Pharisees might think. This was about life and death—more than Nicodemus could have ever realized. Which brings me to the second attribute that I’d like to share.

The questioning Nicodemus. Let’s be honest, Nicodemus is really struggling here. Now we are only in the third chapter of John, and we don’t know how much time that represents but you can tell that Nicodemus has been listening to Jesus. He has had time to think about Jesus words, his theology, and though there’s a lot that Nicodemus likes, there’s also a lot that Nicodemus his having a hard time swallowing. There are teachings from this new Jewish rabbi that, at least on the surface, are not in line with his own beliefs. And I think deep down he wants to understand, he wants to get fully behind this Jesus, but he has some serious hurdles to overcome before he can do that.

So, what does he do? He goes directly to Jesus with his questions. He doesn’t talk about Jesus behind his back. He doesn’t go to Jesus followers and tell them all the things he doesn’t like about what Jesus said or did. He doesn’t go to his fellow Pharisees and ask about these “new” teachings of this “new” Jewish rabbi. He goes directly to Jesus. If that turned out to be the only think we took away from this story I think that would be a huge step in the right direction!

On top of that, he doesn’t go to Jesus to complain and gripe, he goes to Jesus with questions, questions that come from the darkness of his struggles. Another great lesson for our faith from Nicodemus. We are so quick to dismiss or judge those we disagree with. Imagine how much further we could get, how much we could grow, if instead of dismissing and judging, we asked questions, directly with the one we are struggling with, whether that be God, or a fellow human being.

And the last attribute of Nicodemus that I’d like us to ponder is the openness of Nicodemus. And how do we know that Nicodemus was open to what Jesus was laying down? He listened. He asked a question, and then he closed his mouth, and listened to what Jesus had to say. An open heart requires a closed mouth. There’s just no way around that. I don’t have to tell you how much our society as a whole struggles with this. We all have ideas that have to get out! Opinions to share! Uncomfortable silences to break, with something, anything! However, I really do believe that faith grows best in our silence—because it is only when we are silent that we can listen. But it is only an open heart that is willing to be changed by that listening.

So those are three attributes of Nicodemus that we would do well to emulate on our own journeys of faith—his courage, his questioning mind, and his openness to be changed by the journey. What role does courage take in your journey of faith? It should have a role. What do you do with your questions and struggles? Do you go directly to the source? How open are you to being changed by the journey? Or are you fine just the way you are and Jesus will just have to accept that?

Tough questions, I know. But now is the time, and this is the place, with each other by our side, to ask the tough questions that Lent calls us to. Our dear friend Nicodemus appears two more times in John’s Gospel. On Good Friday, we will get to hear where his journey of faith led him—when he realizes that his courage, questions, and openness were indeed matters of life and death, more than he could have ever imagined. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Privilege, Power, and Vegetables

Inspired by Matthew 4:1-11

I love Lent. It’s my favorite time of the church year—more than Easter, and yes, even more than Christmas. I love the music, which in my opinion is the most beautiful music the church has produced. I love the drastic change in liturgy that occurs here, I love the visual imagery, I love its use of all our senses, even our sense of smell. If you were at our Ash Wednesday service and wondered what you were smelling after you received your ashes, the anointing oil that I used to mix with the ashes was frankincense and myrrh, the gifts given to the baby Jesus, making this beautiful connection between Lent and Christmas and Epiphany. And I love the full-stop that it gives us. Advent does something similar but in Lent it seems even more pronounced. Lent urges us to stop and reevaluate and take inventory of our lives.

Which also makes Lent my least favorite season of the church year! I don’t want to stop and reevaluate my life Jesus! I don’t want to take an inventory of how badly I’m failing at life Jesus! Let me just put my head down and keep moving forward! Aren’t you always telling me how much work we have to do. Let’s just go and do it. I know I’m not perfect Jesus. I don’t need you throwing it in my face! And Jesus is standing there in my life like, “Dude, I didn’t even say anything yet. Calm down!” As much as I love Lent, it can be rough, depending on how deep we go with it, and how honest we are with ourselves. As much as I may not like it, I can appreciate the need for Lent in my life. Sometimes faith is like eating your vegetables. You know what I mean by that?

So, every Lent my family and I give up something for Lent together as a family, as well as something individually if we feel so inclined. This year, we are committing to eating healthier this Lent, by reducing many of the unnecessary things in our diet, like carbs, sweets, eating out, etc. So, on Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, day one of Lent, God decides to be cute, and as I get in Chuck Anderson’s car because he took me out for lunch, I ask him where we going? We’re going to the Rat Trap he says. Ok, what’s that? Well, it’s really called the Newcastle Cheese Shop but we call it the Rat Trap because of the amazing sandwich. It’s basically a deli with a sandwich shop. Lord have mercy, I thought to myself. Here we go!

We get there and quickly scan the menu, praying for a healthy item on the menu, remembering my wife’s text a moment before that read, “Don’t forget! Low carbs!” Yeah, yeah, I know. Get off my back Jesus, I mean, Sara. So, I find salad on the menu. Now, I don’t have anything against salads but it’s salad. I look at a salad and think, what’s the point here? This looks like a bowl of wasted life.

I’m the guy at a buffet that just skips the first third of the buffet. No longer do I succumb to the societal pressure to put salad on my plate at a buffet. I’ll look people dead in the eye, like, yeah, that’s right, I’m skipping this part. They look at me like, “You can do that?” I’m like, “I don’t care, I’m doin it.” Like there are rules at a buffet? We’re all just a bunch of cows at a feeding trough anyway, right? Gimme a break. But I still put on my rebel face as I boldly skip the wasted life section of the buffet. So, yeah, that’s your pastor at a buffet.

Now, I know in my mind that I need to eat healthier. I know I need to eat more salad. That’s hard to even say. But do I do it? More often than not, no. So then what? Well, there are consequences to all our choices, aren’t there: weight gain, back pain, decreased energy, decreased physical activity, clothes don’t fit, not to mention a decreased life span. So, Lent is like the doctor who tells you bluntly that you need to eat healthier. Lent is like the text from your spouse to stay away from carbs. Lent is like the pair of jeans that remind you all day that they don’t fit like they used to. Lent is like being reminded to eat your vegetables, even in the form of salads. It’s not something that we may choose to do on our own, but we do because we know it’s good for us.

And I already know that many of you love salads, you don’t need to tell me, I’m so very proud of you. Faith, particularly in Lent is hard work. It’s that time of the year when we are asked to address things that we really would rather not. So, I’d like to point out one of those things that comes from our gospel reading for today. Here we have this well-known story of the temptation of Jesus in the desert. But rather than taking a look at each of the three temptations and relate them to our own lives I’d like to take a look at one thing that is common in all of them. One commentator wisely pointed out that power and privilege is in all of these temptations.

The temptation to turn stones into bread, the temptation to throw himself off a roof, and the temptation to take the kingdoms of the world for himself, all had to do with how Jesus was going to use his power and privilege. Jesus could have done all these things according to Matthew. Jesus had the power and privilege to eat bread that day, to be caught by angels that day, to be the emperor of the world that day. But he did not. Why? Because that is not what he was called to do. Those all would have been self-serving goals. And Jesus was not called to serve himself, but to serve the world. Which got me thinking about our own power and privilege that we have and how we use it.

But first we have to name our privilege, own it, and acknowledge it’s power, before we can even begin to think about how we will use it. Simply as American citizens we have privileges that others don’t, both here in our own country and abroad. Male privilege in our society still exists, the wage gap between men and women is evidence of that. Speaking English as your first language is a privilege that has it’s perks in our society.

And yes, it’s a privilege because, like being male, we didn’t do anything to achieve it, we just happen to be born in a family that taught us English and we enjoy those perks. Likewise, being heterosexual in our society, being born with light colored skin, being middle class, being without a physical or mental disability, being Christian, having a higher education, all privileges that have corresponding perks in our society, but let’s call it what it really is, power.

Our job, like Jesus’ in our gospel story for today, is to recognize, name and own the privileges that we have, and decide what we are going to do with the powers that come with them. Will we choose to serve ourselves with them? Which is by the way the human default. Or will we go against those natural instincts and choose to use our power and privilege to serve others, to assist those who have less privilege than us, to help those who don’t enjoy the perks we do, to be companions with those who have less power. I’m guessing right now many of you are having a negative reaction to my use of the words power and privilege today.

If so, then allow me to be so bold as to suggest that that may be the vegetable that we are being asked to eat from this story about the temptation of Jesus. If we are serious about bringing the kingdom of God to this world, if we are serious about leaving this world a better place than we found it, if we are serious about being a welcoming church that serves our neighbors, if we are serious about being called to a life of death and resurrection that springs from our baptismal waters, then we have to be serious about eating our vegetables.

Doing the hard work our faith calls us to, asking the hard questions of ourselves, tackling our hang-ups face on with words like power and privilege, and allowing those hang-ups to die so that new life, resurrection can come. The world is waiting for the church to respond to many needs. And it’s not waiting for money, or our time, or our talents. First and foremost, it’s waiting for a change of heart, or in the words of John the Baptist and Jesus from this Gospel of Matthew, to change our hearts and lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.