John 9:1-16 March 26, 2017 – Lent 4 Light Reveals
When my children were small, we took summer trips to visit my family in Arkansas. When we were there, we often took a day trip to see Blanchard Caverns, which is a huge system of caves in the mountains of northeast Arkansas. You pay a fee, and take a guided tour of the caves, which are, of course, underground and therefore nice and cool in the summer. At one point in the tour, the guide has everyone sit down in an underground amphitheater, and then he or she talks about caves, about how they are formed and about how life finds a way to exist even in the total darkness of a cave. Next comes my least favorite part of the tour. They warn you, and then they turn off the lights. It is pitch black. Complete darkness is disorienting and distressing, even if you only experience it for a few minutes.
Total darkness was the world of the man born blind in our story from John’s Gospel. This is a story about light and dark, sight and blindness. The disciples’ question to Jesus always seems ignorant to me. They ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” How can you sin before you’re born? And the question itself is wrong. The disciples’ assumption that someone sinned in order to cause the man’s blindness was wrong. Jesus gives a strange reply, that this particular man was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. Then Jesus restored the blind man’s sight, without the man even asking, did you notice that? Jesus healed him so that God’s works might be revealed in him – “revealed” is a good word for what light does, and for what sight does. Light reveals, and Christ is the light of the world.Today, I’m going to talk about several things that the light of Christ reveals. The first is the works of God. In our story, Jesus healed the blind man so that God’s works might be revealed in him. In John’s Gospel, Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” But in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said to us, “You are the light of the world.” We are the light of the world insofar as we reflect the light of Christ. If Christ is like the sun, then the church (and Christians) are like the moon: beautiful and luminous when we reflect the light of Christ. Jesus also said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works, and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
When we reflect the light of Christ, we just naturally shine like the moon, or like a lamp in a bedroom, or like the city on a hill, because God’s works are revealed in us and through us. I recently read a book called Conspiracy of Kindness. The author asserts that the church is supposed to be letting the light of Christ shine by doing random, free acts of kindness and mercy. The book gives all kinds of examples, everything from helping old or sick people by cleaning their homes or yards, to giving away food, to setting up a free gift-wrapping station at the mall, near Christmastime. When we do not charge for our kindness, when we don’t even suggest giving money for fund-raising, it tells people this really is a church who is centered in Christ. Jesus freely restored the blind man’s sight. God’s grace is free.
What are other ways we can let the light of Christ shine, so that outsiders give glory to God? In what ways could this church make personal contact with people in small acts of kindness?
So the first thing the light of Christ reveals are the works of God, and God’s love.
The second thing the light of Christ reveals is not quite so wonderful. The light of Christ also reveals sin. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” In fact, when you read a little farther in chapter 9 of John, the light of Christ uncovers the real sinners. The real sinners in this Bible story were the religious people who were angry that Jesus violated a religious law by healing on the Sabbath. In fact, in the Gospels, the real sinners are almost always the religious people. That ought to be a sober warning to the church (and to pastors), or do you think that we religious people are so different today than they were back in Jesus’ time?The sinners in the Bible often are the religious people whom God expects to be his shining lights -- but who are not; those people who follow the rules, traditions, and forms of religion, but do not show kindness, compassion, and mercy.
In the story of the blind man whom Jesus healed, as we read further, we discover the blind man could now see, but it was the religious people who were really blind. They were spiritually blind. In this story, spiritual blindness is a sin revealed by the light of Christ. That is a serious word to you and me. God is not pleased by the spiritual blindness of religious people.
So -- The light of Christ reveals God’s work, and the light of Christ reveals sin.
Jesus also reveals to us what we need to know about the God whom we worship.
* Do you want to know what God Almighty is like? Look at Jesus; he is, as Colossians tells us, the image of the invisible God. Jesus shows us what God is like. This does not mean Jesus reveals that God the Father has brown eyes, or is Jewish, or is male. Jesus, the image of the invisible God, shows us that the God we worship is loving, kind, humble, compassionate, and merciful.
* Do you want to know what matters to God? Look at what – and who – mattered to Jesus. We worship a peculiar God, who cares more about one lost sheep than about the 99 sheep who are not lost. We worship a peculiar God who rejoices more over one sinner who turns back to God than 99 already-righteous people. This is a God who leaves the good son working in the fields so he can rush out to welcome home the sorry son, in an extravagant display of generosity (parab of prodigal son).
* Jesus showed us what (and who) is important to God by healing the sick, blessing children, eating with sinners, speaking the truth to power, showing mercy, and teaching about repentance. Jesus revealed to us the character of God by bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and by letting the oppressed go free. In Jesus, we see that God cares desperately for the losers -- those who are vulnerable, poor, lost, sick, and imprisoned. God has a special love for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the oppressed – those people who get trampled in a world that values strength, wealth, and success. These are the people who matter desperately to God, and they are supposed to matter desperately to God’s church, as well.Christ, the light of the world, reveals who God is. If you want to know how God uses his power, look at Jesus; look at Jesus healing and teaching and casting out evil. If you want to know how God uses his power, look at the cross. In the cross, we see God’s power strangely revealed through weakness, suffering, and what seems to be failure. As the apostle Paul says, God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, the things that are NOT, to reduce to nothing the things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. What kind of God IS this, whom we worship?
Christ, the light of the world, reveals to us God’s very nature, which is humble, self-giving love. We see God’s love revealed in the life of Jesus, and in his death and resurrection. Surprisingly, in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ we see God’s character revealed – and please do not hear me preaching of an angry God, making Jesus pay for the sins of the world, that is an unfortunate modern twisting of what happened on the cross. But it’s what many of us were taught as children. God does not will evil, and the murder of an innocent man is an evil act. No: God the Father willed the obedience and faithfulness of God the Son, and that led to the crucifixion at the hands of sinful humans. The cross seems so dark, but the cross is God’s light. In that light, we can see a depth of self-giving love that we cannot comprehend. God came to us in Jesus because he loves us and wants to show us how to live and love; God came to us in Jesus, knowing that we would ultimately crucify Jesus, but God loved us enough to come anyway.In the light of the cross, we see a faithfulness we cannot fathom. The cross is God’s refusal to give up on humanity because God is faithful! In the light of the cross, we see a humility we cannot even imagine. In the light of the cross, we see that God redeems and brings eternal good out of the deepest depths of bad. God redeems! Redemption is the forgiveness of sins, and that is what God the Son did for us on the cross. Redemption is eternal life, and that is also what God the Son did for us on the cross.
Redemption, self-giving love, faithfulness, and humility are God’s character; they are who God is. The cross is God’s gift to the church that we can never fully comprehend but can only accept in faith, and profess in word and deed.
The light of Christ reveals God’s works. The light of Christ reveals our sin; and the light of Christ reveals that God is love. May the world be filled with the light of Christ! In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Mark 10:13-16 Preschool Sunday – Feb. 12, 2017 The Power of Prayer
Parents of preschoolers, again, welcome! When my children were the age of your children, I taught them a simple rhyming prayer that goes like this:
God in heaven, hear my prayer, keep me in your loving care.
Guard me through the livelong day, in my work and in my play.
Help me to be kind and true in everything I say and do.Isn’t that a great prayer – it pretty much covers it all: God: hear me, keep me in your care, guard me, and help me to be kind and true. If more people were kind and true, what a better world it would be. I taught this prayer to my children, they said it every night growing up, and I’ve also occasionally led your children in this prayer during chapel time. It’s such a good prayer that sometimes when I was a mother of preschoolers, exhausted out of my mind and unable to think of words to pray – I would be able to pray that little rhyming prayer.
“Let the little children come to me, and do not prevent them,” Jesus says. There are many ways of preventing children from coming to Jesus, but one of the best ways of encouraging them come to Jesus is prayer. We teach our children to pray to the God who dearly loves them and wants them to come to him. We also can pray as a family – and not just at meal time. We teach our children to pray when we are prayerful parents and we let our children see us pray. We also can learn to talk about praying in a natural way.I still pray for my children, and I tell them I’m praying for them. They may roll their eyes at me, but there is something wonderful about knowing someone who loves you is praying for you. A long time ago, my sister suggested I should be praying for the future spouses of my children, so I started doing that, and I still do it now that they have spouses. Last year, both our children got married to wonderful young people; and why not, I’d been praying for them for years. God answered my prayers concerning the future spouses of my children, and now I’m witnessing to YOU about the power of prayer.
Not everyone believes in that power, not even every church goer. A few years back at a different church, one of the older members said to me, “Pastor, I don’t think we should be praying for all these sick people on Sundays. How can we possibly know what’s best for them, or what God’s will is for them?” I answered, “Well, we always pray within the parameters of God’s will, but we know from the Bible that God wants us to pray. I know from personal experience that God sometimes does heal people, presumably at least in part because of prayer.” And I told her, “Prayer changes things.”
She replied, “Humph,” which translated means “Bah Humbug.” She said, “I’m not going to presume to pray for people when I have no idea what is best for them.” But the next year when that woman was diagnosed with lung cancer, she surely did change her tune. Suddenly, she wanted her church family to pray for her, for healing, and so we did. We did; I did. Glory be, the cancer is in remission, and she’s doing fine today. It changed the way she thinks about prayer, and now I am witnessing to you about the power of prayer.God in heaven, hear my prayer, keep me in your loving care.
Guard me through the livelong day, in my work and in my play.
Help me to be kind and true in everything I say and do.
Believing in Jesus, loving Jesus, and talking to Jesus are natural for small children when they see their parents doing the same thing. Children are sponges, aren’t they, and little children think their parents are great. It’s a lot to live up to -- that whole business about being “kind and true in everything I say and do” – boy, that came back to bite me. I remember picking up my daughter from elementary school one day, and she described how this mean girl in her class had been really mean to her. We mothers know about mean girls, don’t we? So I started telling my daughter how to deal with this mean girl, and you know what she said to me? “Mom, I thought we were supposed to be kind and true (and forgiving).” Gulp. I had to say, “Katherine, you are right. Thank you for reminding me.” When she was small, our daughter thought her parents were wonderful. She’s come around to thinking it again, but there was this big gap between the ages of about 12 and 17, when I did a lot of praying for her. This coming May, our daughter will graduate from veterinary school, and she has become such a kind and true young woman, and not just to animals. I am witnessing to you about the power of prayer.“Let the little children come to me and do not prevent them,” our Lord says. There are many ways of preventing children from coming to Jesus, but one of the best ways of encouraging them to come to Jesus is teaching them to pray, modeling prayer, and talking about prayer – and not just during preschool. It is simple and easy; in fact, let’s do it right now. Let us bow our heads and pray:
God in heaven, hear our prayer, keep us in your loving care.
Guard us through the livelong day, in our work and in our play.
Help us to be kind and true in everything we say and do. Amen.---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Matthew 5:21-26, 6:14-15 No Future Without Forgiveness Feb. 5, 2017
Last week, I received an invitation to participate in an Ash Wednesday worship service with University, Amity, and Carrboro Methodist Churches. I hesitated before answering. I wondered: Will you all forgive me if I say “yes”? I think I need to say yes. And has this church forgiven …. everything… enough to be able to attend the service, which will be held at Amity?
I have been a pastor long enough to know that every single one of us struggles with forgiveness, and Jesus talks a lot about forgiveness, doesn’t he? Today we have a sampling of some of the very hard sayings about forgiveness and reconciliation contained in the Sermon on the Mount. Forgiveness is so important to our Christian walk. Forgiveness is so important to God that God would literally give up his Son on the cross so that we would understand this.
Our walk with Christ gets blocked when we bear a grudge, when anger and resentment are at a low boil inside of us, or when we are unable or unwilling to forgive and let go. There is a saying that there is no future without forgiveness, and how true this is. When we do not forgive, we become stuck in the past, unable to live fully in the present, or to move with freedom into the future.
Unless the offense was small, forgiveness is rarely easy or uncomplicated. One of the complicating factors is that many times, one of the people we need to forgive is ourselves. But Jesus insists: We must forgive. So, today we’re going to talk about forgiveness. But before I talk about what real forgiveness is, it might be easier to begin by saying what forgiveness is NOT. So let’s start there.
Forgiveness is NOT tolerance. Tolerance is to put up with, or to overlook, on-going wrong-doing. Don’t forget Jesus said it is better to have a millstone tied around your neck and be drowned into the sea than to cause someone else to sin. God takes sin seriously, and we should, too. Now, in our everyday lives, we cannot control other people’s behavior, and we should be very careful about what we call sin. But in our family, in our work place, in our church, in our little circle of influence, Christians are not supposed to turn a blind eye to wrong-doing -- and call it forgiveness. Let’s take something fairly small, like hurtful gossip. Gossip doesn’t seem nearly as bad as, say, stealing, or abuse, or racism – all of which also happen in work places, homes, and churches. Even something small like gossip can do profound damage, and you may have experienced the damage that gossip can do. So when we encounter it, we are not silent; we speak out. We do not tolerate or ignore wrong-doing and call it forgiveness. Forgiveness is NOT tolerance.
Forgiveness is NOT a quick fix for anxiety. This is when we try to extend a false kind of forgiveness too quickly and easily. I’ll give you a church example. When a pastor gets pulled out of a church for embezzlement, sexual misconduct, a hit-and-run DWI (I’m trying to think of awful things that actually do happen), church members sometimes want to forgive the pastor very quickly and restore him or her. What those church members want to offer is not real forgiveness because it does not take seriously the sin or the harm the pastor caused. The so-called forgiveness is actually an attempt at quick relief for the congregation’s anxiety. This same thing sometimes happens in families; a family member will be pressured to overlook or quickly forgive serious wrong-doing that is causing harm within the family. The so-called forgiveness is really about relieving the anxiety of family members who want to avoid conflict. So, forgiveness is not intended to be a quick fix for anxiety.
Forgiveness is NOT necessarily forgetting. But aren’t we supposed to forgive and forget? Well, yes and no. To forget serious sin does not take the sin seriously. Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. In terms of church life – yes, we absolutely must forgive the person who, say, embezzles the youth fund. But to take the sin seriously means we might require the person to pay back what they stole, and we definitely would not put the person in a position where they would have access to money and its temptation. So -- forgiveness is not necessarily forgetting, but real forgiveness also means we do not continue to beat people over the head with our remembering.
Along the same lines, to forgive does not necessarily mean you must trust someone who is not trustworthy. You can forgive, even if you do not trust. This is very liberating for people. However, trust IS necessary for reconciliation. But --
Forgiveness is not necessarily reconciliation. Reconciliation is the restoration of a relationship, and we hear in our scripture reading today how important it is. But sometimes between humans, an on-going relationship is not possible or advisable. Sometimes, you don’t want to restore the relationship; it might be dangerous to do so. Reconciliation requires that we actually sit down together and talk. Reconciliation requires an ability to listen and talk in a civil way, and also to restore some level of trust. If we value a relationship that has been shattered by wrong-doing, we may want to work toward reconciliation. But here’s the thing about reconciliation – both people, or both groups of people, have to want to reconcile for it to work. It cannot be done without the commitment of both parties. Forgiveness requires only one person – you! Reconciliation requires both.
So, forgiveness begins with taking serious sin seriously. But forgiveness also involves letting go of offenses that are not serious. In the work place, in church life, in marriage and family life, there is a temptation to take offense at small things, or where no offense is intended. If I wear my feelings on my sleeve, and people have to walk on eggshells around me because I’m sensitive and easily offended, then I’M the one with the problem. Just because you or I get our feelings hurt does not mean someone else has sinned. So -- sometimes forgiveness begins with growing a thicker skin. This is a hard lesson I’ve learned as a pastor. Anyone who works with people needs to have a thick skin because you cannot work effectively with people and be hypersensitive.
Forgiveness begins with taking serious sin seriously, but also letting go of trivial or unintentional offenses. As Christians, we learn to let the small stuff go and forget it. I am constantly grateful to church people who do this so gracefully.
As an aside, people who do research about interpersonal conflict have discovered that biting your tongue goes a long way in keeping conflict from escalating. In an angry conversation, people tend to “one-up” each other with nasty comments, and people end up saying hurtful things they don’t even mean. Being Christian means learning to bite our tongues, forgive it, and let it go. And don’t you think I have bitten my tongue clean off in church many times over the years?
Okay, then, after we let the small stuff go but take serious sin seriously, how do we really forgive? In our lifetimes, there might be terrible, even life-altering offenses committed against us -- or against someone we love. The offense might be accidental, but some trespasses are serious, intentional, and repeated. Sometimes there will be a heart-felt apology, but often there will never be remorse or repentance; never be an apology or even an acknowledgment of wrong-doing. Can we ever forgive something that altered life forever? What is real forgiveness?
First, real forgiveness is a process. It is a process that takes time and work. The process means we acknowledge our feelings of anger, grief, betrayal and then work through them, sometimes with professional help. There are some good books that can help with the process. Sometimes, the process of forgiveness includes examining the ways we might have contributed to the offense. It might mean trying to understand the violator’s point of view. It often means some painful digging into our past. Forgiveness is a process that can take a long time. It’s something that we work toward.
Second, real forgiveness means we must give up our right to retaliate, and sometimes give up our right to see justice done. Forgiveness is very difficult when there is no acknowledgement of guilt, no restitution, and no apology. Why should we forgive under these circumstances? We forgive because there is no future without forgiveness. By holding onto the offense, we become a slave to the past, and we let the past determine the future. Refusing to forgive means we give someone else power over us, and we allow someone else, in a way, to define who we are. Lack of forgiveness leads to on-going bitterness, depression, and feelings of being a victim. There’s an expression: “Not forgiving someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
The enemies of Jesus beat and crucified him, and although his enemies murdered an innocent man and committed the worst offense possible against Jesus, he never allowed himself to be defined by their behavior. They never had that power over him. Jesus forgave those who crucified him, from the cross.
Third, real forgiveness is a gift from God. When the offense is great, real forgiveness is possible only with God’s help. Admitting that we are not able on our own to really forgive some offenses frees us to ask God for help. God empowers us to forgive. It’s still going to be a hard process; God doesn’t just wave a wand and make us be forgiving. But God calls us to forgive, and so when we ask in prayer, God will empower us to forgive. Pray for the gift of forgiveness.
Finally, real forgiveness means letting go. Letting go. Sometimes we cannot reconcile because the other person doesn’t want that, but we ourselves can hold loosely, and forgive. The books and articles about forgiveness that I consulted also say to truly forgive means we actually reach a point where we can wish the offender well. We can pray for God’s blessing for them. Maybe this is why Jesus said we should pray for our enemies.
You know, sometimes, we act like God’s enemies, and yet God forgives us -- over and over again. It is God’s nature to forgive. When we forgive one another from the heart, we show that we belong to Jesus. It is also God’s nature to reconcile with us – but it takes two to reconcile, remember? God said a forever “yes” to us through the cross. We also know, as Christians, that to accept the forgiving and reconciling grace offered in the cross means becoming agents of that grace ourselves in the world.
We forgive because God forgave us first. We forgive because Jesus commanded his followers to forgive. We forgive because there is no future without forgiveness.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.