Sunday, March 26, 2017

Healing Mud: John 9:1-11 - Fourth Sunday in Lent

1As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8The 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?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He 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.” (NRSV) 
fountain pen.JPG by Cas.  Creative commons image on flickr
I met a 75-year-old woman named Edith during my hospital chaplain internship.

Right away, I noticed was that her food table and her bed were covered with piles of stationery paper from the hospital gift shop.

Edith explained that she had cancer all through her body, and earlier that day she and her doctors agreed to suspend all treatment.  She had but a few days to live.  But she resolved to not spend her last days of life staring at the TV.  She said, “As long as I have the strength, I’m going to write letters to everyone who’s made a difference in my life.  If they’re dead, I’m going to write it to them anyway and give it to their relatives.” 

Edith died the very next day.  But God worked miracles in her death—showing her just how much she was loved that she just had to write it all down.  What a miracle that her loved ones could grieve seeing and knowing how much they, too, are loved.

What a miracle for me to see so much of God’s life and love in this dying woman.  I call this a miracle because God’s love isn’t always so visible and undeniable. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples encounter a man blind from birth. His disciples ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”   Their question expresses a belief that’s had almost universal acceptance since the days of Abraham: that human suffering was always God’s punishment, either for the sin of the sufferer or their parents…

Jesus gives them a very direct answer: “neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

Unlike so many other occasions, when Jesus speaks using parables and metaphors, the meaning of these words is crystal clear.  Yet, this seems to be one passage in the Gospels that is forgotten and ignored. 

Granted, there are plenty of occasions when suffering can be directly attributed to a sinful act.  But much of the time, you can’t really know for sure.  Unlike people in the Bible, you don’t have God showing up and telling you point-blank that you’re being punished.  The answer to the question of why is unknown and unknowable…

But that doesn’t stop the devil from attacking you with SHAME, to say: “you’re weak, you’re immoral, you have no faith…”  On top of that, people will shame you—because of your weight or your age; your race or your gender; because you’re poor; because you’re discouraged or depressed; you have an addiction.  Therefore, you must be weak, immoral, and have no faith…

The human ego loves to build itself up by shaming and blaming other people.  This is the modus operandi of the bully.  And by shaming and blaming you, these people absolve themselves from having to help you.  After all, if you’re suffering, and it’s your fault, then helping you would be a waste of valuable time and resources. 

The man born blind was a sinner, as were his parents.  But Jesus does not give him or his parents moral or spiritual evaluation.  He simply declares: God’s works will be revealed in his blindness. 

Jesus destroys shame because shame is a form of spiritual blindness.  When there’s shame, you are not able to see the truth of who you are and who Jesus is!  Shame and blame don’t heal;  they only destroy.  God, on the other hand, is present in all things working for the good.

This means you can face your most difficult days with confidence that you will both see and know God’s goodness.  In the same way that Jesus gave the blind man mud from his own spit, Jesus’ healing gifts are not always pleasant or pretty.  Like the blind man, healing is not an instant “abracadabra,” but a process and a journey.

One of the most powerful ways Jesus will heal you is by sending you—because Jesus heals people with people!  And you don’t need to be a doctor or an ordained minister to make a difference.  When people love, God heals.

One of the church’s greatest gifts that we still need to unpack is the fact that we all have stories to share about what God is doing in our lives.  You cannot underestimate how powerful a gift it is to be able to share your story with others.  I know my faith has been blessed incredibly by the stories you’ve shared with me. 

When there’s shaming and blaming, there’s no hope.  But when two or more are gathered, and graciousness abounds, Jesus is there—and we help each other to see him.  It’s no longer sins or faults or failures that we’re seeing; just what truly matters: God’s good works.  God’s not necessarily the cause of all things, but God is present in all things, so that God’s works may be revealed.” 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

From Disgrace to Grace: John 4:5-41 - Third Sunday of Lent

Artist: Kristen Visbal, Photographer: Federica Valabrega via Business Wire
5[Jesus] came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
27Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30They left the city and were on their way to him.
31Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
39Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
Photo by Liz Condo for The Washington Post
It could be the world’s most unlikely friendship: between 79-year-old John “Quick Draw” McGraw and 27-year-old Rakeem Jones.

About a year ago, they “met” at a campaign rally for President Trump: McGraw as a Trump supporter; Jones as a protestor.  As Jones was being escorted out of the event by a security guard, McGraw “sucker punches” him in the face. McGraw would later say, “next time we see him, we’ll have to kill him.”

Photo: WNCN
The two men met up last December in court where McGraw pled guilty to misdemeanor and disorderly conduct.  But something very unexpected happened: McGraw apologizes to Jones.  Jones accepts the apology and hugs McGraw.

Late last week, they sat down and had lunch—as friends.  They spoke.  They listened.  They healed together.

Sadly, the humility and humanity these two men share is more the exception than the norm in our world today—as it has been for most of human history.

For as long as human beings have lived in community, we’ve always gone out of our way to exclude certain people. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus meets such a reject.

Jesus was passing through a Samaritan city called Sychar, and Jesus sits down to rest near Jacob’s well.  A Samaritan woman comes by to draw water, and Jesus asks her for a drink. 

Right away, John reminds us that Jews share nothing in common with Samaritans.  Samaritans may have worshipped the same God, but they were regarded as racial and religious “mutts.” In their history, they had intermarried with pagan peoples, and they worshipped God on Mount Gerizim, not in Jerusalem.

But these are not the only strikes against her…

Jesus knows that she’s had five husbands—and that the man she’s living with now is not her husband.  Bear in mind that women had no ability to divorce their husbands.  It is entirely possible, then, that she could have been discarded by five men (for no reason)—and living with the sixth man is her only alternative to homelessness.

Put it all together, and she was the misfit of misfits. 

And here is Jesus, talking to her.  Jesus, asking to drink from her jar (which would’ve been seen as a vile act of religious contamination)…  Jesus, loving her and answering her questions about God’s truth…  Jesus, welcoming her into God’s family and discarding the disgrace of being a quintuple divorcee…

We’re told she leaves her water jar at the well—because she has been given the living water Jesus has promised.  She goes back to town, and there she tells everyone about Jesus. 

What’s amazing here is that people believe her.  To think that a Samaritan quintuple divorcee is now proclaiming Jesus Christ with the effectiveness of people like Paul…  To think that Samaritans are now included in God’s family…

This is what Jesus does—he takes the tragedies you suffer and the maltreatment you suffer, and sets you free from them.  He destroys the disgrace that clings to you after you’ve sinned—or after something happens to for which you lack the ability to change.  He destroys the labels and prejudices people give you because of who or what you are or where you come from.  He quenches your thirst with the water of new life.

But to experience Jesus in this way, you must do likewise.

You must forgive people who don’t deserve forgiveness.  People called Rakeem Jones a fool for forgiving Quick Draw McGraw.  And—you must embrace God’s image in people who are as reprehensible to you as Samaritans were.  It’s not enough to say “I’m not prejudiced” or “all lives matter.” 

I’m reminded of a man who once raised a ruckus over the addiction support group meeting in his church.  He said, “I don’t feel sorry for those people.  They should’ve never started drinking in the first place.”  Clearly, the cigarette butts he found in the flowerbeds mattered more to him than the fact that these were human beings created in God’s image, who needed compassion.

You must be willing to enter another person’s world and risk being wounded by their woundedness.  You must realize that you may become a misfit in the eyes of people you value and respect because you’re caring about misfits!  You may find the inspiration and love of Jesus Christ in someone as reprehensible as the Samaritan woman.

Furthermore, when Jesus gives you a new identity that’s cleansed of all disgrace, not everyone is going to welcome you with open arms.  In people’s eyes, rejects should stay rejected.  Children of God, on the other hand, persist.  They worship God.  They serve with the compassion of Jesus.  They boldly testify to the new life Jesus brings like the Samaritan woman. 

One of the most painful realities of living in our world today is that we’re inventing more and more reasons to hate each other, as if we need to get rid of people to make the world a better place.  But if you build an ivory tower on the foundation of hate, it’ll eventually cave in on you.  Fact is, no one’s immune to disgrace.  But Christ’s grace destroys disgrace.  He can make it fertile soil for new life for you and the life-giving ministry for others through you. 

Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift!