Disfiguration Sunday

 Inspired by John 9

As you may have noticed on the front of the bulletin, today is Transfiguration Sunday. And for those of you who are biblically astute, you also noticed that what I just read was not thee Transfiguration story. Why, you ask? Well, the explanation is simple. John did not include that story in his Gospel. The other three Gospel writers did. He did not. John also didn’t include the story of the Last Supper. Gasp? I know! Shocking! As I’ve mentioned before, this is a very different telling of the Jesus story than the other three, but let’s get back on track. So, since we’re reading through his gospel, we don’t have thee Transfiguration story to read. However, I would still call this story of the One Born Blind a Transfiguration story, you’re just gonna have to use your imagination with me a bit to get there. First off, what is transfiguration? 

I know, that sounds like the beginning of the most boring sermon ever, I hope to God it is not. Usually on this Sunday we read the story of Jesus going up a mountain with his closest followers and his entire being is transformed into radiant light and Moses and Elijah even make a guest appearance with him to have a little chat. And every year on this Sunday we read that story from one of the other three Gospel writers and call it Transfiguration Sunday because Jesus was transfigured into glorious light before their eyes. However, what we often fail to realize is that Jesus wasn’t the only one transfigured on that mountain, and I’m not talking about Moses and Elijah either. I’m talking about those followers that came along for the ride that day. I assure you, they did not walk down that mountain with Jesus the same people. 

Hold that thought, and let us take a look at this story that John gives us for this day. It was very long I know, and we don’t have time to take this verse by verse, but I think it was worth the time to read it all. Because what we find is that sight is the name of the game throughout the story, and the healing of the blind one was just the tip of the “sight” iceberg. The story begins by pointing out what Jesus saw, the one born blind. Immediately after, John writes that Jesus’ followers ask, “Rabbi, was it this individual’s sin that caused the blindness, or that of the parents?” Now just take a moment and sit with that for a bit. Sit with the different ways that Jesus, and his followers, see. Jesus saw a person who was born blind. 

The key phrase there being, Jesus saw a person. His followers, saw sin—whether it was sin in that person, or the sin of the parents, or ancestors. Where Jesus saw a person, they saw sin. And what Jesus did next began the process of his transfiguration in their eyes. Because what he did next was going to change the way they saw him forever, not just on a mountain top meeting—forever. He tells them three things. Jesus tells them that sin had nothing to do with it. He tells them that if God’s works are gonna shine forth in them then we’re gonna have to work together with him. He ends by reminding them that he is the light of the world, intimating that they too have a part to play in the shining of that light. All very new and challenging concepts! And then, almost as if to give them a visual representation of what he’s talking about, an ancient form of a PowerPoint, he heals the one born blind. 

I can imagine the look on Jesus’ face as he turns from those newly opened eyes and looks into theirs, as if to say, are you connecting the dots here, people? I can’t do all the work for you! They needed to allow his transfiguration in their eyes, to transfigure their eyes so that they could go out into the world and see differently, see the way that Christ sees the world, because that is the only way healing happens. They couldn’t see the one born blind as anything more than a child of sin and therefore the one born blind was relegated to a life of poverty, begging on the street. Jesus on the other hand, saw not a child of sin, saw a child of God, and healing was the direct result of that. But that can only occur after transfiguration has happened, after such a drastic transformation happens that sight is actually changed, as drastic as sight to the blind. 

Here's where it gets problematic. What do you do when transfiguration feels like disfiguration? Remember those new concepts that he threw at his followers? That being blind had nothing to do with sin? That they were going to have to do the works of God with him? That Jesus’ light will shine its brightest if it goes through them? These weren’t just new concepts these were new theologies! These were new ways of thinking about God and about themselves and about the world! Jesus was upending their whole outlook on life and if you’ve ever been asked to change the way you think then you know how uncomfortable that was for them. And Jesus was just getting started! This was easy stuff compared to what was ahead for them—compared to what they were soon going to be asked to unthink and rethink, to unbelieve and believe anew, to unsee and then see with new eyes! 

Those of you who have endured this know how painful this process can be, know how disfiguring it can feel. Why? Well, partly because change is usually unpleasant, and anything worth doing usually entails hard work. But more than that, especially when talking about being transfigured by Christ’s transfiguration, it goes against our grain! It’s not how we humans are built. The ancients of our faith called it original sin, I don’t know about that but what I do know is that we humans are built, genetically speaking, to look out for number one, to survive at all costs, even at the cost of those around us. The exact opposite of the way that Jesus taught us to live. Just take a look at the other people in this story from John for some examples of this. 

The Pharisees, the ones who are supposed to be with bearers of wisdom, the ones who should have the keenest of eyes, who should know the ways of God better than any of them, turn out to the blindest of them all. Blinded by power and greed and a downright destructive god complex. They can’t see Jesus for who he is, let alone the one born blind, who they now not only think is a sinner but also a heretic as well! Not even his parents are immune to this blindness. They don’t really care who healed their child! They just know that their child was indeed healed! Too blinded by their fear of the authorities to be transfigured by this experience. Even after their own child was healed by the living light of the world. 

For a modern example of this, I got a taste of it when I attended the last Placer county board of supervisors meeting. I attended because of a newly proposed ordinance, that would greatly harm our houseless population, particularly in Auburn. As I listened to the way that people talked about the houseless, even if they didn’t necessarily say they were speaking in favor of the ordinance, I could easily tell which side they were on. Aside from speaking from a stance centered on the self, their property, their safety, their city, aside from that, they would speak of the houseless as either those people, at best, or at worst, as objects. In just their language you could hear their blindness, their inability to see our houseless population as fellow human beings. 

At the end of our story, Jesus seeks out the one he healed and asks, “Do you trust in the Chosen One?” The healed one asks, “Who is this One, that I may place my trust?” Jesus says, “You’re looking at him.” And the healed one responds with an immediate, “Yes, I trust you.” And the transfiguration of the one who was once blind was complete. After being healed, and seeing Jesus face to face, trust blossomed. But it’s easy, and I don’t mean to disrespect that once blind person, but it’s easy to trust in what you can see, isn’t it! It’s a whole other question to trust in what you can’t see. And one thing that we can never see, is the future. I’d be a tone-deaf pastor if I didn’t have on my mind while I wrote this sermon of the very important congregational meeting we have ahead of us today. 

For so many churches today, most of them I suspect, each and every congregational meeting is more important than the last, each and every congregational meeting is heavier than the last. I know I’m not the only one that feels that weight. People don’t value church the way that they used to. People don’t attend church the way they used to, and even those that do have redefined what regular attendance is. People don’t give financially to churches the way they used to, for a variety of reasons, many of which are out of their control, but not all. I could go on as to why each congregational meeting is heavier than the last but I’ll save that soapbox for another day. What I believe is at the core of that heaviness is our inability to see the future. But instead of giving us a break, Jesus wipes the mud from our eyes, knowing we still can’t see the future any better than before, and still looks us in the eye and asks, “Do you trust in the Chosen One?” 

Well how can we, we’re blind! We can’t see what’s coming! We don’t know what’s ahead! Well, that’s not what he asked us, is it? “Do you trust me?” is what he asked. If you can answer yes to that question, then you will see the world the way that Jesus does. If you can answer yes to that question, you won’t see sin around every corner, you will see human beings. If you can answer yes to that question, you will see hope where others see despair, you will see possibility where others see defeat, you will feel a sense of adventure begin to brew deep down in your gut where others would become nauseous at the site of such terrain on the horizon. If you can say yes to that question you will stand up and clock in at wherever Jesus is currently working. 

If you can say yes to that question, “Do you trust me?”, you will radiate Christ’s light so bright, the future will see you coming, forget us needing to see the future, the future will see you coming, and get out of the way. Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am no optimist. I know we have a lot of hard painful work ahead of us. And I also know that money ain’t gonna fall from the sky. But I ain’t no pessimist either. I mean, how can I be, when the one that I follow, the one that I’ve devoted my entire career and livelihood to, is the living light of the world? And so my prayer for us this day and every day but especially this day, is that we allow the transfiguration of Jesus to transfigure us into something new, and that it give us eyes to see, if not to see the future, fine, then eyes to envision it, imagine it, dream it, and the will and strength and courage, to give it a shot. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Zwiebelmett, Tortillas, and Really Living

 Inspired by John 6:35-59

Have you ever been given something to eat, taken a bite, and realized that what was inside was something you didn’t expect, maybe even didn’t like, and had you known what was inside, you may have said no thank you! What do you do? Do you spit it out? Do you just push through and try to be respectful? What if it makes you nauseous, and spitting it out might make it even worse? Have you ever had an experience like that? I’m guessing many of us have had some kind of experience like that.
Have you ever had Zwiebelmett? It’s a German sandwich. From afar it looks like a typical cold sandwich. But once you bite into it, you realize it is not. The bread makes it look very inviting but inside, it is filled with raw minced meat and raw onions. You heard that right, raw minced meat and raw onions. Now, I’m pretty adventurous but if someone gave me that and didn’t tell me what was in it! I don’t even want to know how I’d react!

Speaking about food, food seems to be on Jesus’ mind in our story for today from the Gospel of John. Right out of the gate, Jesus begins with, “I am the bread of life.” The passage that I read is part of a much larger narrative that really begins at the beginning of this very long chapter. The whole thing is seventy-one verses long! I only read verses 35-59. You can thank me later. But I was tempted to read the whole thing because the chapter opens with the feeding of the five thousand, so you can see the connection already right, as Jesus talks about being the bread of life after having filled their bellies. We also skipped the story of Jesus walking on water, which is a story about Jesus’ identity but also about trust—two key components for today’s story. So, all of this is what leads into Jesus declaring himself to be the bread of life.

He follows that up with, “No one who comes to me will ever be hungry; no one who trusts in me will be thirsty. But as I told you, you see me and still don’t trust me.” Right away you understand that Jesus is talking about something more than literal bread and hopefully they did too. Remember, some of these people he was talking to were just fed by Jesus and as filling as I’m sure that meal was, they had leftovers if you remember, they still got hungry again. Like the woman at the well, Photini, from a few weeks ago, they were left wondering if there was more to life than what they had experienced. Was the rat race of just getting your next meal, satisfying your and your family’s physical needs, today and for their future, all there was to life? Even the rich eventually come to this same question after they realize that despite all they have, it’s never enough. Is there something more? Jesus gives us a decisive “Yes!” but it’s not exactly what we’d expect.

Because bread of life sounds nice, doesn’t it? Bread is always inviting. Who doesn’t like bread? Home-baked bread from your mom or in my case, homemade tortillas, still hot, with some butter. Oh man, nothing like them in the world! But that’s when Jesus takes a very drastic culinary turn. Like wheels screeching, you’re suddenly in a different seat kind of drastic turn—when Jesus says, “…the bread I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The temple leaders look around at each other, scratch their heads, clear their ears with their pinkies and ask, “Did he just say what I think he said?” And in typical Jesus fashion, he not only repeats it, he doubles down!

Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Everyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me, and I live in them. Just as the living God sent me and I have life because of God, so those who feed on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven.” He just gave them a Zwiebelmett sandwich! It may have looked like a tasty sandwich with homemade bread, but it was anything but! Aside from this sounding utterly disgusting, Jesus’ flesh and blood, not the sandwich, I don’t want to insult any German listeners or anyone who likes to eat raw meat for that matter, but aside from that, this was just too much for the typical Jewish listener to handle.

But before we go any further, I’d like to say a few words about what John means by eternal life. I won’t bore you with another Greek lesson but this doesn’t mean what you probably think it means. We’ve been indoctrinated to believe that when John says eternal life he means living forever, being immortal, going to heaven. I hate to break it to you but that is not what John is talking about here. I’m not saying that John didn’t believe those things, I’m just saying that that’s not what he’s talking about here. What he is talking about is the kind of life that God calls us toward. Another way to translate it might be, a heavenly life, rather than eternal life. Or maybe a Godly life. Or, maybe just, real life. God’s plan for us is not just survive, but to live, really live, in the here and now, not in some far-off place after we die. Now, what that looks like is going to be a bit surprising so let’s get back to the story. Now where were we, oh yes, Jesus’ blood and gore…

Eating meat with its blood still in it was against their law. But human meat? Human blood? This was just too much! Why would Jesus do this? Why would he ruin a perfectly good-tasting bread metaphor? Well, many scholars over the past two millennia have tried to tackle this. And many of them make a lot of sense! But I’d have to side with the scholars that have taken a very simple approach to this. I mean, why make it more complicated than it already is, right? Ok, so, one, Jesus loved to shock people into thinking in a different way. Most of his whole ministry was trying to get people to think differently, about God, about life, about each other. And it was a way of thinking that was very counter-cultural, so much so that it was thought of as deviant and dangerous by those in power. But to get people on the road to thinking differently, sometimes you gotta snap them out of their current way of thinking with something that has some shock value, hence, the whole eating his flesh and drinking his blood!

But let’s go deeper than that. Because if you know how this story ends, spoiler alert, Jesus dies a horrific and very bloody death, then anytime Jesus mentions his flesh and blood how can we not think about his death? And more importantly, how can we not think about the sacrificial way that he lived? And let’s take just one step further, and talk about the sacrificial way that Jesus calls us to live. That’s what Jesus is really talking about here after all. And thankfully, Jesus doesn’t try to hide it inside a nice warm homemade buttered tortilla, but tells us, upfront, that following him, isn’t going to be pleasant, it might even make you a bit nauseous at times, and it’s certainly going to involve sacrifice—like any healthy relationship does. Whether that relationship be with God, your spouse, your sibling, your parent, your child, your friend, your church, or the total stranger you meet at the grocery store who’s wearing a t-shirt in support of the other political party.

Following Jesus, eating the bread of life, will always involve sacrifice, will always involve giving without any assurance of a return. That’s why the bread of life can be less homemade tortilla and more Zwiebelmett sandwich—with all apologies to our German siblings. And so, when you take communion next, with your little morsel of bread or wafer, and grape juice or wine, thankful for all that God sacrifices for you, I invite you to also ponder the ways that God may be calling you to Christ’s sacrificial way of living. And if the thought of that way of life seems a bit scary, seems a bit overwhelming, maybe even makes you a bit queasy, know most assuredly my friends, that you are on the right track, that you are on the way to living, really living, the way God intended, in the hear and now, for the sake of the world, always, for the sake of the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Do You Trust Me?

 Inspired by John 4:43-54

That of course was from Disney’s Aladdin waaay back in Nineteen Hundred and Ninety-Two. Can you believe that was thirty years ago? Wow! That means I graduated from high school thirty years ago this year! Anyway, for those of you who haven’t seen this movie classic, Aladdin is the tale of a poor kid living on the street who finds a magic genie to grant him three wishes and one of those wishes is to become a prince so he can marry the princess. In the clip that I just showed you, he has already been transformed into a prince, however, the princess had already met him earlier in the movie when he was still living on the streets. And in this scene, she doesn’t know it’s the same person until he asks her, “Do you trust me?” Because he asked her that same question when they met the first time. It was how they first connected, in spite of the fact that she had no reason to trust him, then or now, she did and the rest was history as they lived happily ever after.

Hold that thought and let’s dive into our Bible story for today. After spending a couple days with the Samaritans after his encounter with Saint Photini, he travels back to Galilee where he’s beginning to make a bit of a name for himself. Word is getting around about the amazing things that Jesus is doing and they welcome him back to Galilee with open arms, well, most of them. While there, he meets a royal official whose child was sick and comes to Jesus for help, begging Jesus to heal their child who was on their deathbed. Jesus then gives one of his trademark unusual responses. You know the kind, the ones that make you wonder if Jesus woke up on the wrong side of the mat! He does this a lot. This time he says, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you won’t believe!”

Now, maybe Jesus slept through his Pastoral Care class in seminary, but anyone can tell you that this was no way to react after someone tells you their child is dying! In all fairness to Jesus, he probably didn’t. Odds are this was just John’s way of moving the story along to get to the point that he is trying to make. I just wish John would have let Jesus’ gentleness shine through a little brighter at times. But I digress, this is what John has given us so this is what we are left with to try and figure out. Why does Jesus seem a bit flustered? What’s got his tunic in a bunch? Well, before we get into that, let’s talk about how this healing story ends up. As if to ignore Jesus’ little outburst, the royal official pleads again, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” Because for this parent, that’s all that matters, right?

This royal official may be an important person in the royal world but at the end of the day, this is a parent, a parent with a sick child. I know many of you have had a sick child and know that special kind of pain. Is there anything more important than seeing your child well again? No. There’s no time here to allow Jesus to go on about some lesson or frustration that he is going through! Their child was sick, and that’s all that mattered. Sensing this parent’s own frustration, Jesus simply says, “Go; your child lives.” Depending on how you read it, that could sound a bit cold, or read another way, short and sweet? Either way, the royal official does as Jesus instructs and leaves. But not without John sharing the most important detail of this healing story that will make it all make sense.

John writes that the parent of that sick child believed what Jesus said. And right there you have the real miracle of this story. As with most of the miracle stories that John will share with us, the miracle itself usually isn’t the point of the story, that’s usually not where the real magic happens. But pastor, the child was healed, wasn’t that miraculous? Sure, but remember Jesus’ frustration earlier? He had been doing miracles for a while now, enough that word was getting out about him. And yet, he’s still frustrated. Why? Well, to get at that answer I’m gonna have to return to the original Greek. Don’t roll your eyes. This will be quick. The Greek word that is translated as “believe” here, “pisteuo”, is often translated as “faith.” But especially in John, neither of these translations are very good. Even better would be to use the word, trust.

When we use the word “believe”, what comes to many of our minds is a belief in facts or knowledge or the actual words coming out of Jesus’ mouth. As in, “the royal official believed that Jesus did heal the child”, as a fact. In the same way we believe that the sun rose this morning and it will set this evening. This is not what John is talking about when he uses the word pisteuo. You may remember a few weeks ago when we started reading through the Gospel of John, I mentioned that each of these miracles that John will share with us will reveal something new about who Jesus is, and therefore who God is. With that in mind, John and Jesus weren’t as interested in people believing that he could do amazing things, as they were in those amazing things cultivating trust. That’s what the royal official had in Jesus that so many others did not, trust.

Time and time again Jesus had been extending his hand out to people like Aladdin to Jasmine asking, “Do you trust me?” Only for them to be so enamored with his abilities, that they don’t even see it. But Jesus wants us to go deeper than that. And in this story finally, someone comes along and not only believes Jesus can do amazing things but trusts him, and that trust ran so deep that the parent was able to trust Jesus with their child’s life! Cuz if you think about it, if that parent hadn’t had trust in Jesus, they never would have walked away, but would have continued to beg for their child’s life! And that’s what this healing story reveals about Jesus—that Jesus is one we can put our trust in—even when, especially when, times are toughest.

For John, salvation wasn’t about going to heaven, nor was it about adhering to a set of beliefs or tenets or doctrines. Salvation was having a relationship with the Word made flesh. And you can’t have a relationship with anyone, let alone God, without trust. Trust is one of the very foundations of a relationship! And this is not only what we are called to have as followers of Jesus, but also what we are called to protect for others. I don’t have to tell you that trust in churches, let alone God, is at an all-time low in our society. People have lost so much trust in us that across the nation and world, churches are getting smaller and smaller. And you know what, I can’t say I blame them. 

When people see so many who claim to be followers of Jesus, hurt others in his name, judge others in his name, condemn others to hell in his name, it’s no wonder that so many have lost trust in the church, especially with such loud voices of negativity out there, all claiming to be followers of Jesus. It’s that trust, trust in Jesus, that we have the blessed responsibility of protecting and sometimes, wining back. And that means our voices are going to have to be louder. I know, that's tough for us Lutherans, isn’t it? We’re not used to having to be the loudest voice in the room! But if we want the world to experience trust in Jesus again, the way we do, then we’re going to have to get our bullhorns out, so that all may hear, that our God is a trustworthy God, not a God of pain, or judgment, or condemnation, but a God we can trust our lives with, our children’s life with, no matter what. Thanks be to God. Amen.