Here are a few of Kim’s favorite sermons. Each contains thought-provoking questions. Each relates the lessons and the stories of the Bible to real life. And each will resonate in some way with you, touch you, make you think about your faith and what place God and Christ have in your heart and in your life.

Thou Preparest a Table Before Me

"Thou Preparest a Table Before Me..."
Luke 24:13-35

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” 

They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” 

Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. 

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. 

Osama Bin Laden is dead.  What has that death stirred up in you?  Based on what I’ve seen and heard in the news--and among my friends on Facebook—even here in this room this morning, reactions to the death of bin Laden run the gamut from “Good riddance” (choose your expletive) to “we should never rejoice in the killing of another human being.” 

I admire the folks who responded quickly to Bin Laden’s death this week.  To be that certain that quickly about what this death means?  To know unequivocally what it says about who we are as a country?  To know without doubt how people of faith should respond to it?  I wish I could be that certain…but I’m not.  I’m not certain how I feel about Bin Laden’s death.  I’m not certain how I feel about people celebrating that death.  I’m not certain how I feel about the people beating up on the people who are celebrating his death.  I just don’t think the death of Osama Bin Laden is a clear-cut, black and white issue when it comes to faith.

Neither, I suspect, would Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Bonheoffer, a Lutheran pastor in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s, wrote books on faith that still are read by many people.  In fact, his best-known work, The Cost of Discipleship, will guide a lot of our study on the Sermon on the Mount this summer.  In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer challenges Christians to avoid what he calls “cheap grace”--the idea that it doesn’t matter what we do, all is forgiven, whether we own up to our faults or not; the idea that faith asks nothing hard of us.

Do you know how Dietrich Bonhoeffer died?  He was executed for the role he played in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler.  When I learned about Bonhoeffer’s involvement in a plot to kill another human being, I pushed it to the back of my mind.  “Yeah, he did that.  But look at all the good things he wrote before he did!  When I teach Bonhoeffer, we’ll just skip over the plot-against-Hitler part.”

Hearing all the different responses to bin Laden’s death this week, though, has brought Bonhoeffer’s death—and what led to it—into clearer focus.  One of the statements that made the rounds this week was this:  “People are not evil.”  Which is true.  If you believe in a loving God, you can’t say that God creates evil beings.  Every human being, every human being, is, as the youth banner says, “A magnificent creation of the divine.”

So, people in and of themselves are not evil, but there are people who open themselves up to evil in ways that are so wide and so deep that their actions become evil.  What do I mean by evil?  Basically, evil, in my understanding, is anything that impinges on or militates against the goodness of God’s creation.  Anything that diminishes the goodness of creation, anything that demeans or belittles or prevents the flourishing of human beings, that is evil.

Genocide is evil.  Ruthlessly killing innocent human beings—then gloating about it--is evil.  Denying people’s humanity is evil….in fact, that might be the foundation of all evil—a refusal to see others as “magnificent creations of the divine.”

So, what do you do when a person who has so opened himself to evil refuses to stop?  What happens when people keep being killed and tortured and terrorized?  What happens when a person becomes so corrupted by evil, his actions bring only despair?  Then, what do you do?  In World War II, churches did very little to stop Hitler.  When Bill Clinton talks about his regrets as president, the top of his list is that he didn’t do something sooner about the genocide in Rwanda.  What do you do when evil runs amok, mostly at the behest of one person?  Our government did something—it killed Osama bin Laden; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man of deep Christian faith, did something--he plotted to kill Adolph Hitler.

A lot of what I’ve read on Facebook this week has been not so much about the death of Osama bin Laden, but about people’s reactions to that death.  Some of my friends have lamented the fact that people are rejoicing in this death—like the people who gathered at the White House and in New York City Sunday night.  The thing that bothers me about beating up on people who rejoiced—or are rejoicing—at bin Laden’s death is that we don’t know the individual stories of the people who gathered Sunday night.  We don’t know why people are rejoicing.  Maybe some people were celebrating the man’s death in a vengeful sort of way…but maybe some people felt a sense of closure—at last--and wanted to be with other people to mark that moment.  We had the wind knocked out of our sails—or maybe a hole kicked in our hull—as a country on September 11, 2001.  The last decade has been hard for our country…maybe Sunday night people were simply longing to feel connected again—in a good way—with their fellow country people.

I can’t beat up on anyone who celebrated this week.  I just can’t do it.  Without talking to them, I don’t know why they celebrated.

Here’s what I can do…I will remind us all that no one person holds all the evil in the world.  Bonhoeffer might have had good and faithful reasons for participating in the plot against Hitler; the United States might have had good security reasons for killing Osama bin Laden, but is there still evil in the world now that bin Laden is gone?  Absolutely.  Did anti-Semitism and other forms of dehumanization die with Adolph Hitler?  Absolutely not.   Killing or “neutralizing” individual people—even ones who have opened themselves completely to evil—does not end the fight against evil.

Why is that?  Why doesn’t the death of a person who does evil end evil all together?  Because each of us, every last one of us has the ability to do evil.  Any one of us here can participate in evil.  Any one of us is capable of denying the goodness of God’s creation in other people.  As one wise rabbi said:  “In this moment, there is a perfect balance between good and evil in the world.  My next action will tip the scale.”  Any one of us can tip the balance toward good; any one of us can tip the balance toward evil.  What I’m trying to say is that if we assign all evil to the bad guys, it becomes very easy to dismiss the tendency toward evil in ourselves.

So, what is an appropriate Christian response to Osama bin Laden’s death?  What should this death mean to people of faith?  As one bereaved sister said, “Osama is dead…Let’s see…nope.  My soldier brother is still dead.”  The effects of evil actions live on and, unfortunately, so does evil itself.

That being the case, what is an appropriate Christian response to the death of Osama bin Laden?  An appropriate Christian response to the death of Osama bin Laden is to continue doing what we’re called to do every day of our lives—celebrate the life and goodness of God’s creation and seek justice and mercy for all God’s children, which is to say, all people.  Our job is, with every fiber of our being, with every action we take, to seek to tip the balance toward good.  The fight against evil in the world begins with the fight against evil in our own souls.  “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin” where?  Let it begin with me.

Hear me well.  I am not saying, I am not saying that any of us has the capacity to do evil like the Hitlers and bin Ladens of the world.  That is NOT what I’m saying.  What I am saying is that the capacity to deny the magnificence of God’s creation in others is on a continuum.  On one end, you’ve got the bin Ladens and the Hitlers.  On the other end you’ve got the rest of us…We participate in evil when we stereotype people because of race or gender or sexual orientation….We participate in evil when we give no thought to the lives of the poor, even as we live lives of privilege…We participate in evil when we deny the goodness of God’s creation in our selves.  

We are not evil people, not at all…but because of our human failings, we do have the capacity to participate in evil, to take evil actions, to do things that deny the goodness of God’s creation in others.  If our celebration of the death of the bad guys causes us to ignore our own capacity for evil, then, as people of faith, we have missed the point; then we will not have responded adequately to the death of Osama bin Laden.

So, what does all this have to do with today’s Scripture story?  Two disciples still reeling from the violent death, not only of their friend and teacher, but of their hopes and dreams, are joined on their walk home from Jerusalem by a stranger.  He asks why they are sad; they tell him.  “Jesus, a great prophet, was killed.  We thought he would save us.  And now, three days later, some women have told us they went to the tomb and his body is gone!  Some men who were there at the tomb said Jesus had been raised.  Our friends went and looked; Jesus wasn’t there.”

A beautiful irony, isn’t it, these people telling Jesus that Jesus is missing?  But sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we can’t see Jesus, even when he’s right there beside us.  In this case, Jesus calls Cleopas and his friend foolish, then “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” 

But even that doesn’t open their eyes.  Anyone who’s tried to study the Bible knows-- sometimes Bible study opens your eyes and sometimes it just makes you more confused.  In the case of Cleopas and his friend, Bible study—even one led by Jesus himself--doesn’t give them any insight at all….at least not yet.

But something happens in the conversation with the stranger…because they ask Jesus to stay.  So, he does.  Then he joins them at the table.  And that is where the insights come… that is where they recognize Jesus…that is where the Bible study finally makes sense.  That is where the healing happens.  

And that is where we’ll learn something about how we people of Christian faith might respond to the death of Osama bin Laden.

To be continued….at the table.

Communion  (5/8/2011)

“When he was at table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.”

The table is an important place in the Gospel of Luke.  Kind of like a middle school lunchroom, the table in first century Middle Eastern culture was the place where social rules were deeply entrenched.  Sit in the wrong place, eat with the wrong people, and your social capital could be obliterated in a single meal.  Looking at the seating arrangement of any meal in the Middle East would tell you who had the power…and who didn’t.  Just like a middle school lunchroom.

Jesus, in his usual not-so-subtle way, used the table to redefine social rules and social power.  He ate with tax collectors and sinners…and worse.  He even ate with Pharisees.  In his table practices, Jesus actively demonstrated the reality of God’s kin-dom.  God’s kin-dom is a place where we eat with and live with people outside of social norms.  The table isn’t a place of status…it is a place of fellowship and kinship…which means that anyone with whom you eat—anyone—becomes kin.  

In light of the news about bin Laden’s death…and seeing so many comments on Facebook lamenting the death of even enemies, I’ve been thinking about that line from Psalm 23: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”  Maybe that’s the key to figuring out what to do in the face of evil in the world, no matter the scale of that evil.  

Perhaps the best thing we can do in response to the death of Osama bin Laden is to continue doing what we can to tip the balance toward good…perhaps we begin at the table, by inviting our enemies to join us here.  Now y’all, we don’t have to start with a member of Al queda or a neo-Nazi or Fred Phelps.  It’s okay to start this with sort-of enemies, or people we don’t like, or a friend or family member with whom we’re on the outs, or even someone we’ve just never noticed before.

Who knows?  When breaking bread, blessing it, and sharing it…  When pouring the fruit of the vine, blessing it, and sharing it… Who knows?  Perhaps once again, in the breaking of bread, we will recognize Jesus…even in the eyes of our enemies.  And perhaps in the moment, the balance will tip just a bit toward the good.

Let us pray.  Holy One, we ask today that you make the meal we’re about to eat—and all our meals—opportunities to recognize you.  Be made known to us again, in the breaking of this bread.  Amen.

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness.  Amen.

Sharing the Unknown God

"Sharing the Unknown God"
Acts 17:16-34

Paul in Athens

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the market-place every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.’ (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’ Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. 

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said,

“For we too are his offspring.” 

Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’ 

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them. 

Have you been called to go to any chariots this week?  I’m referring to the story we heard last week… the one where Philip is told by the Spirit to go to a wilderness road where he encounters an Ethiopian man sitting in a chariot reading Isaiah.  Philip helps the man understand Isaiah—and Jesus—the man comes to believe then asks to be baptized.  Then Philip is “snatched away” by the Spirit and plopped down somewhere else miles away.

Great story.  Just makes you want to pray and listen to the Spirit, then go wherever the Spirit tells you to go and share the good news with everyone you meet.  Paul’s experience with the Athenians might make you think twice before sharing the good news with others.

Paul enters Athens already having been driven out of Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea.  It seems everywhere he goes, he stirs things up.  The people in Berea assigned to escort Paul out of the city deposit him in Athens then leave him there.  While waiting for his fellow missionaries to arrive, Paul walks around town and is “deeply distressed to see that the city is full of idols.”  He’s so distressed, in fact, that he takes to the streets preaching.   

Athens—like our own Athens over in Clarke County—was a university town.  It was full of intellectuals and philosophers who spent most of their time doing “nothing but telling or hearing something new.”  So, when Paul starts preaching “something new,” they bring him to the Areopagus—the official debating place—and give him a formal listen.

Once in a Bible study I was teaching, someone called Paul an “idiot.”  Paul might have been strong-willed and rigid on occasion, and he was definitely a man of his times regarding the status of women and slaves, but if you read anything attributed to him, there’s no way you can call him an idiot.  Paul was a brilliant theological thinker.  And this “argument” he makes to the Athenians at the Areopagus proves just how brilliant.

First, he begins where they are.  “Athenians”—he calls them by name—“I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”  Okay, that part might have been said tongue-in-cheek.  But then he goes on to talk about how when he was taking in all those idols they had put up, he noticed one with an inscription that read, “To an unknown god.”  It seems this deity-riddled people wanted to cover all their bases.  They likely established this idol as a way to appease any god they might inadvertently have missed.

Starting with this idol to an unknown god, Paul proclaims the god they don’t know as the one he knows intimately and he does so through brilliant argument.  First, he begins with a basic philosophical question:  How did we human beings get here? and answers it:  We are here because God created us.  Just imagine the power and strength and wisdom it took to create our world!  How could such a creator, “one who is Lord of heaven and earth…live in shrines made by human hands, [or be] served by human hands?”  As creator, “God needs nothing, since [God] himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”  

After establishing that God is our creator and that as our creator needs nothing from us—idols and such--Paul says this:  “From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth—meaning, we’re all human beings and as human beings we are all alike-- and [God] allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him or reach out for him and find him—though indeed [God] is not far from each one of us.”  Again, Paul is delving into philosophical argument here.  He’s dealing with the most existential question there is:  Who are we human beings?  And he zeroes in on a key aspect of being human:  an innate sense of incompleteness.  The very fact of the tribute to an unknown god indicates the sense of incompleteness all people feel.  Paul names that reality…

…then he quotes two of their philosophers:  “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’”  And “We are [God’s] offspring.”  And because we are God’s offspring, God’s creations, so to speak, it doesn’t make sense, it’s in no way rational, Paul says to these rational thinkers, to think that a lump of gold or silver or stone, something created by the imagination of human beings can accurately represent God.  

Until this point, Paul has held his own with the Athenians.  Through rational argument he has shown just how irrational worshiping idols is.  But then he starts talking about the resurrection and loses the crowd.  They stop listening.

Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian was so positive, it made you want to go share your faith with everyone.  Paul’s encounter with the Athenians makes you wonder if it’s worth it.  After all his hard rhetorical work, after witnessing to others about the love of God, the text says that some “scoffed,” while others said, “Let’s meet again and talk some more.”  There were a few, though, who “joined him and became believers.”  I don’t know.  Sounds like a lot of hard work only to gain one or two believers.

How’s it been in these last two sermons hearing about sharing our faith with others?  Has it made you nervous?  If you’re like me, you grew up in a tradition that talked about witnessing and soul-winning all the time.  A lot of that sort of thing in my experience was out-and-out emotional manipulation.  There always seemed to be an element of bullying to it… you know, get saved so you don’t spend eternity in hell.

I can’t tell you how happy I was ten years ago to find a denomination that referred to evangelism as “the e-word.”  This was my kind of denomination!  One that was so leery of evangelism, it couldn’t even say the word!  I knew I had found a spiritual home.

But…is sharing faith only something evangelicals do?  Must faith-sharing be emotionally manipulative?  Is it something thinking Christians should shy away from or not?

Next Sunday is Ascension Sunday…that’s the day when Jesus leaves his disciples for good.  The account of the Ascension in Acts has these as Jesus’ last words:  “And the Holy Spirit will come upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  “You will be my witnesses…to the end of the earth.”  I wonder why?  Why would these be the last words of Jesus to his disciples?

Perhaps he was trying to impress upon the disciples just how important the good news is for all people.  So many people feel that incompleteness Paul was talking about.  So many people have deep spiritual questions, questions that compel them to “grope for God.”  So many people are so lost—not in the sense of lost-and-going-to-hell—but in the sense of lost, not sure where they are in life, not certain of their worth, not certain they even have a place in the world.  So many people’s lives could find meaning, deep meaning, if they heard and came to believe the good news that God loves them.  That God loves them.  

Like Louie Zamperini.  Unbroken is the book that tells Louie’s story, the one time Olympic hopeful who enlisted in the Air Corps in 1941, flew several missions, then was captured by the Japanese after his bomber crashed into the Pacific.  After two and one half years as a prisoner of war in brutal conditions Louie finally returned home.  

Everything seemed fine for a while.  Louie married, found work, started his post-war life.  But the nightmares and flashbacks started, too.  The flashbacks were horrific-- he didn’t just remember the abuse in the camps; it seemed to him as if it was actually happening all over again.  One night he woke up from a dream where he’d been strangling a Japanese guard; he was, in fact, strangling his wife.

One thing kept the flashbacks and nightmares at bay—alcohol.  So, Louie drank.  A lot.  Things became unbearable at home.  Cynthia, his wife, planned to divorce him.

Then Billy Graham came to town.  Cynthia went to the crusade one night—and her life was transformed.  She decided not to leave Louie.  She asked Louie to go with her the next night.  Louie had given up on God.  Where had God been in the Prisoner of War camps in the Pacific?  Why were things so difficult after the war?  Why was his life falling apart?  The only answer he could come up with was that God was either a hoax or ineffective or terribly cruel.  Whatever the case, Louie didn’t want anything to do with God.

And yet, in Paul’s words, Louie was “groping for God.”  He was feeling woefully incomplete, an emptiness he tried to fill with alcohol and hatred for his Japanese tormentors.  It took two nights, but Louie also found God in the midst of Billy Graham’s preaching.  His life, too, was transformed.  He gave up alcohol; he gave up smoking; he gave up his fantasies about killing the most abusive guard.  With God in his life, Louie realized he had enough now.  Accepting God’s acceptance of him and love for him was enough.

I went to a Billy Graham crusade once.  I had very high expectations that night in Oklahoma City.  I need to confess that I was disappointed.  Rev. Graham is a powerful preacher…but he didn’t speak in a way that resonated with me.

But this isn’t about Billy Graham…this is about how human beings are created with a deep longing to be connected with something bigger than themselves.  Paul said it well, there is something innate in human beings that gropes for, searches for, hopes for connection with God, with all that is good in the universe.  How else can we explain the existence of religion in every culture from the beginning of time?  And until we connect with the “other,” we feel lost.  As Augustine said, “O God, our souls are restless until they find their rest in thee.”

Louie Zamperini’s soul found rest at a Billy Graham crusade.  Many of us have found it in our families or in church or in nature or in the beauty of art or science…

But what if, what if you are the one who can help someone else make that vital connection to God?  What if you are someone’s Billy Graham or Philip or Paul?  What if you are the one who can—through some word or gesture or action—help someone else connect to the God who creates them, redeems them, sustains them, and hopes for their wholeness?  Might that not be worth just a tiny bit of scoffing on occasion?

In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness.  Amen.

The Man Born Blind Encounters Jesus

"The Man Born Blind (the Part of Us That Can't Yet See) Encounters Jesus"
John 9:1-41 

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.  His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.  We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”  When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent).  Then he went and washed and came back able to see.  (1-7)

What a great story!  A man born blind is healed–he can see.  And in his healing, God is revealed...which means that in that man’s seeing others are invited to see God’s glory and love.  Wow!  What a great story.  What story could possibly top that one?  Let’s see what comes next.

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?”  Oh.  I guess this story’s not quite done.  I mean, it seemed done.  The blind man was healed; God’s glory and love were revealed.  What more is there to say?  

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?”  Some were saying, “It is he.”  Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.”  He kept saying, “I am the man.”  But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”  He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’  Then I went and washed and received my sight.”  They said to him, “Where is he?”  He said, “I do not know.”  (8-12)

Uh oh.  I was afraid of that.  Now come the questions, the explanations, the parsing taking a perfectly fine sentence and diagramming it.  (Shiver.)  

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.   Great!  If anyone should understand a miracle, it’s the religious authorities, right?  Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.  Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight.  Not even a “Hallelujah” or a “Glory to God?”  

He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes.  Then I washed, and now I see.”  Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.”  But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?  And they were divided.  So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him?  It was your eyes he opened.”  He said, “He is a prophet.”  (15b-17)

Oh man.  Can’t they just let the miracle be?  The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight.  Apparently not.  

So they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind?  How then does he now see?”  His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes.  Ask him; he is of age.  He will speak for himself.”  His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.  Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”  (18b-23)

Not even his parents could acknowledge, much less celebrate the miracle.  

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind –Here we go again.– So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God!  We know that this man is a sinner.”  He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner.  One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  They said to him, “What did he do to you?  How did he open your eyes?”

How sad.  The first thing this man sees in his life are these fussin’ Pharisees?  Of all the things he could be seeing, this is what meets his eyes.  Maybe that’s why his response is a bit crabby.

They said to him, “What did he do to you?  How did he open your eyes?”  He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen.  Why do you want to hear it again?  Do you also want to become his disciples?”  Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.  We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”  The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing!  You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.  We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.  Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.  If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”  They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?”  And they drove him out.  (26-34)

Well, that’ll solve everything, won’t it?

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”  He answered, “And who is he, sir?  Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”  Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”  He said, “Lord, I believe.”  And he worshiped him.

Hmm...Let’s try something.  How would the story read if we skipped from v.7 to v.35?

(V.7)  He spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam”...Then he went and washed and came back able to see....(v.35) Jesus found him and said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”  He answered, “And who is he, sir?  Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”  Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”  He said, “Lord, I believe.”  And he worshiped him.

Ah!  What a beautiful story!  A story of a miracle; a story of a healing.  But it’s not the story the Gospel writer tells.  Beginning again in v.39.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”  Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”  Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”  (39-41)

What does it mean to say, “If you respond to these words, then for you they have become the word of the living God?”  How are we to respond to these words?  How should we respond to them?

Who gets the white hat in today’s story?  Who gets the black hat?  Maybe we respond to these words of Scripture by cheering the man born blind and jeering the Pharisees.  Maybe we respond by announcing the good news that Jesus’ healing love is for everyone and by denouncing the rigid legalism of institutional faith communities…

…except, well, this is a little awkward…but as a church, we sitting here this morning are an institutional faith community.  We are the Pharisees.  We are the establishment religious people.  In this story, the black hats are ours.  See what I mean?  Awkward.  

Establishment religion doesn’t fare well in John’s Gospel.  Two weeks ago, we met Nicodemus, the Pharisee who came to see Jesus at night--the religious leader who didn’t get the good God-news when Jesus shared it with him?  Then last week we met the woman at the well—a person who was not part of the religious establishment but did get the good news.   Today, we meet the man born blind.  He gets healed by Jesus, then is kicked out of the synagogue.  Why was he kicked out?  Because the religious authorities (Nicodemus’ pals) didn’t get his healing.  They didn’t get the Jesus thing.  They didn’t get the good news.

Which makes you wonder…as part of the religious establishment, do we get it?  Do we get spiritual healing?  Do we get the Jesus thing?  If someone we know came and told us about healing that had happened outside this community, how would we respond?  How do we, how does the church, in general, respond to the lives of 21st c. people?  Is the Christian church today losing its relevance?  Are we, this Christian church, losing ours?  

After seminary, I seriously considered leaving the church and Christianity.   Witnessing the worst of denominational politics from the inside, I was fed up.  And weary.  And wounded.  If Christian community could be that destructive, that exclusionary, that mean, who needed it?  If Christian community was that harsh, did I need it any longer?

I remember exactly where I was on Emory’s campus when I asked myself that question.  Standing there beneath the chapel, it came to me.  The problem wasn’t with Christianity itself; the problem wasn’t with Jesus or God or Christian community, per se.  The problem—at least as I had experienced it—was with some Christians, some Christians who, despite their best efforts, really didn’t get the Jesus thing; Christians who were so immersed in the old way of doing things, so concerned about deciding who was in and who was out, they had missed completely what Jesus was trying to teach.  They missed the whole love thing and the whole helping people flourish thing and the whole hoping for people’s wholeness thing.  Despite their best intentions, those Christians had missed the good news.

So, in that moment—a moment of conversion, I’d say…right there on the underside of the church—I decided two things.  First, I would learn everything I could about Jesus.  There is so much to learn from this God-revealer, this wise mystic, this sibling of ours!  This man who poked holes in religious pretentiousness and called everyone he met to authentic faith; this one who cared so much about the souls of the rich and the lives of the poor; this one who so consciously tried to point us to God…I really believe that if we focus on Jesus, learn as much as we can about and from him, we’ll have all the information we need to live a truly authentic God-life.  So, I committed myself to Jesus.

The second thing to which I committed myself that day was church.  The Church (big “c”), it’s messed up, isn’t it?  There are so many ways in which established Christian religion has gotten so much wrong.  But here’s the thing—I believe church can work if we work at doing it right.  Church can be a place of healing and nurture and acceptance if we, its members, get intentional about it.  Church truly can be a sanctuary if we—all of us together—work to make it so.  Church can again be the body of Christ if we focus on the Christ, on Jesus, God’s son, our brother.

So, how do we?  How do we create a church that Jesus—and maybe some of our neighbors--would be proud to attend?  How do we create a community that teaches and nurtures faith that is relevant to 21st c living?  How do we create strong, authentic Christian community?  The first thing we do, is to keep doing what we’re doing.

I’ve got to tell you, it’s hard for a preacher to get her John the Baptist on in this place.  I’d love to preach, “Change your ways!” but your ways are already pretty good.   I’d love to preach, “Love your neighbor!” but you do.  I’d love to preach, “Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, house the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned!” but you do.  I’d love to preach just how important it is to accept people of other lifestyles, other ethnicities, other faiths…but you do.  I’d love to preach about sharing each others’ joys and concerns, hopes and fears…but you do all those things.

Now, don’t be getting the big head…there certainly are ways we can improve on the things I’ve listed.  But on the whole, you all get the important things about being a Christian faith community.  That’s why we hear every Sunday about how we feel safe and loved in this place.  That’s why we hear nearly every week a word of thanks to the community from one of our members.  That’s why a teenager felt safe enough a few weeks ago to tell a bunch of adults in this church, “I love you guys!”  Those kinds of things just don’t happen in communities that aren’t safe and nurturing.  

So, my first word about staying relevant in the 21st c. is simply to continue doing what you’re doing.  Keep being the amazing community you already are.  Keep welcoming people and loving them.  Keep sharing God with and being God for each other and for visitors in our midst.  Keep advocating for the poor and vulnerable, keep doing everything you already are doing to create God’s kin-dom here on earth as it is in heaven.  

Can you imagine how different the healed blind man’s story would be if his faith community had done even half these things?  It’s easy to beat up on the Pharisees, to see all the characters in this story wearing either black or white hats…but very few things in this world are that clear, are they?  Pharisees were faithful people; I have to think they were doing the best they knew how.  The problem was, well, Jesus says it in the last words of this story:  

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”  Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”  Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin.  But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”  (39-41)

So, the first thing we can do to keep our community relevant to the faith lives of 21st c. people is to keep doing the things we already are doing.  Then, the second thing we can do—the thing we must do—is never to take what we’re doing for granted.  We must never assume we can see the whole picture.  As with the Pharisees, the moment we assume we can see everything there is to see about faith, that’s the moment we stop seeing…and the moment we stop seeing is the moment we become irrelevant.  And the moment we become irrelevant is the moment that people in the world around us lose their connection to the love of God.  And so, in this moment, let us pray to see.  

Open my eyes that I may see, glimpses of truth Thou hast for me. 
Place in my hands the wonderful key that shall unclasp and set me free. 
Silently now I wait for thee, ready, my God, thy will to see. 
Open my eyes, illumine me, Spirit divine!