Saturday, February 12, 2011

Calvin Retreat Sermon

I preached this sermon at the Presbytery of Transylvania Calvin Retreat this weekend (mostly preachers, some educators and Elders). I was one of 5 preachers, and each of us was assigned one of the Sundays in Lent (not counting Palm Sunday). My assignment was Lent 4. I almost went to the 1 Samuel passage. The sermon title would have been "A Crisis In Leadership." Skim Judges. Read the chapters of 1 Sam leading up to the Lectionary. Think about it. Instead, I chose John 9 - a passage with way too many possibilities, some of which I followed before finally ending up with this. You can read the Scripture readings here.

“What do you say about Jesus?” – Stephanie Sorge Wing

This really is a great story, isn’t it? It is so full of dialogue, interesting characters, and scene changes, it almost demands to be dramatized rather than simply read from the pulpit. It already has a soundtrack. We’ve got Hank Williams’ “Then like the blind man that God gave back his sight, Praise the Lord, I saw the Light!” Or, if you prefer John Newton, “I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.” This is a good old-fashioned conversion story! Now, I know we're Presbyterians, and when Presbyterians talk about seeing the light, we might be making a pun about the wise stewardship of switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, or perhaps we'd be talking about the light at the end of a particularly long committee or Session meeting. Having gone to Seminary in Louisville, I heard more than once about certain Baptists who "saw the light" and came from “that place down the road” to work or study at the Presbyterian Seminary. Let’s be honest: chances are, if you hear a Presbyterian shout, "I have seen the light!" there isn't a dramatic story of personal, soul-saving conversion following those words. Then again, the conversion that takes place in this story isn’t all that sudden, either. Eventually, seeing is believing, but the road to that belief is a winding one, paved with many questions. Let’s take a closer look.

Jesus and his disciples are out walking around, and they come to a man who was born blind. Have you ever noticed how much of Jesus’ ministry happens when he is out walking around with the disciples? The disciples ask, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" For the most part, we tend not to believe that illnesses or disasters come as the result of sin, but that was pretty common thinking back then. Of course there are contemporary Christians – including prominent leaders – who still believe that. To them, and to the disciples, Jesus responds by saying that neither the man nor his parents sinned. The blindness is not a punishment from God.

Unlike many other miracle stories, the actual healing is not a climactic part of the action. Jesus makes a salve of mud and spittle, then tells the man to go wash in the pool of Siloam. The man does as he is told, and then, he is able to see. When he returns to his neighborhood, the drama really picks up. The scene is almost comical. The next question is asked: "Isn’t this the guy who used to sit and beg?” The people are arguing amongst themselves, and the man himself keeps saying, "Yes, it's me!" The thing about having an encounter with Jesus is that it changes you. It changes you in ways that you might not fully realize or recognize. Sometimes it's easier to cling to an old identity, one that is known and accepted by your friends and neighbors, than it is to claim the change and live into the new creation to which we are called. After all, no one really expects much from a blind beggar.

Finally the neighbors accept that it is the same man, but they keep asking, "Then how were your eyes opened?" He tells the story, plain and simple - "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." Unsatisfied, they take him to the Pharisees, who ask the same questions. Some Pharisees respond, "He was working on the Sabbath? That's against our Book of Order. He can't be from God." Others say, "Maybe, but how could a sinner perform such signs?"

Sometimes it is easy to mock the Pharisees, but I think we can sympathize with their position. We all know at least one individual in our communities who is perpetually troubled – behind on rent, short on food stamps, coming around or calling frequently for assistance. What if one of these individuals came by the church office one day, but didn’t ask for anything? What if she came in with a story that she had been healed of the long-term disability that kept her from working? She tells you that the Pentecostal preacher down the road prayed with her, and she was healed. How would we respond? Is our faith big enough to accommodate the possibility of a miracle? It can be jarring when we witness God’s work that doesn't conform to our decent and orderly categories of belief.

The Pharisees continue to question the man. "What do you say about him?" Up to this point, the blind man has referred to Jesus as "the man called Jesus." But now, after having shared what is becoming his testimony, he is emboldened to say, "He is a prophet." When we are asked, "What do you say about Jesus?" how do we answer? What if it cost us our social standing or the esteem of our peers? Dare we risk a Christology that is too robust, or too anemic?

One of the best sermons I heard in the Louisville Seminary chapel during my time as a student was entitled, “Why I Love Jesus.” The highly-respected professor who preached it proclaimed unapologetically her love for Jesus Christ, acknowledging how such a sermon would be unfortunately out of vogue in the academic community. The question, “What do you say about Jesus?” sounds a bit funny, doesn’t it? But consider the startling fact that, Sunday after Sunday, in churches across the presbytery, congregants and visitors alike make a conscious decision to come, sit in the pews, and listen to what we have to say. Their very presence asks the question, “What do you say about Jesus?” People are hungry to hear what we have to say about Jesus – not because they want to know what we think, but because they have a hunger for the bread of life, even if they can’t exactly name it. There are many more who have the hunger that they can’t name, and don’t know where to find the life-giving bread. What do you say about Jesus?

The Pharisees find the man's parents and intend to unmask the truth. They ask, "Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?" They may as well be asking, “What do you say about Jesus?” The parents aren’t willing to take the bait. They confirm that he is their son, and he was born blind, but then they place the risk of testimony back on their son. By this time the Pharisees are beginning to lose their patience. They have asked their questions, and despite what they have seen and heard, all they can say about Jesus is that he is a sinner. They go back and demand that the man give glory to God by admitting that Jesus is a sinner. This man who was born blind can’t argue with the knowledge of the Pharisees. All he can do is tell what he does know: "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, though I was blind, now I see." What can you say about Jesus?

It can be tempting to feel like we have to have the answers to most of the questions, most of the time. People expect us to have the answers, and there are many questions. They expect us to know what to say or do in times of crisis. They don’t know just how long and extensive the list of "things they don't teach you in Seminary" is. Yet when we really get down to it, isn’t the question at the heart of ministry, “What do you say about Jesus?” We can spin our wheels answering the countless other questions, comments, and complaints that crop up during the week, but those are all distractions. We might not have the answers to everything, but we can follow the man in saying, "Let me tell you what I do know about Jesus – how I have experienced Jesus in my life.” Testimony is the starting point – the only starting point – for all evangelism, all preaching, and all teaching.

The Pharisees press on. "What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?" The man responds, "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?" The Pharisees could neither see nor hear the Truth when it was right in front of them. The man who was born blind, however, is seeing the light. Through the series of questions, he has gone from talking about the man called Jesus to proclaiming him a prophet, and now, even seeing himself as his disciple.

What seems to bother the Pharisees the most is that they like to be in the know; they pride themselves on having the answers, but for all of their knowledge, they are still in the dark. This is contrasted by the insight of this man born blind. He says, "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... If this man were not from God, he could do nothing." This leads to the incredulous question: "You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?" You can almost hear this question being spit out, and with equal disgust, they send this man out from their presence.

This man who was born blind has been thrown out by the Pharisees and left hanging out to dry by his own parents. By all appearances, this man is more alone than he has ever been, but again, things are not necessarily as they appear to be. It is then that Jesus seeks him out again. Jesus asks, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" The man responds, "And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him." Jesus says, "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he." At long last, after being healed, after telling his story and facing angry questions, and after being cast out, the man born blind worships Jesus: "Lord, I believe."

In the closing scene, Jesus, the light of the world says, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." The final question in our text is asked by some Pharisees standing nearby, "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.” The Pharisees relied on their own knowledge, their own sight, rather than looking to God. As a result, when they actually were in the presence of God in Jesus Christ, they had developed such a blind spot, that they couldn't even recognize the source of light in front of them.

How often do we rely on our own knowledge, and our own way of seeing things? We have spent years in school learning to see things a certain way, to look at life and faith from particular angles. We have learned to sniff out “bad” theology, to be wary of instant conversions and cheap grace. Surely we are not blind, are we? So then, what do we say about Jesus?

Through one series of questions, a man whose life has been touched by Jesus comes to believe in him, and worship him, as Lord. And yet, through a different series of questions, Pharisees who cannot make the answers fit into their defined categories of knowledge or theology, miss seeing God. While the Pharisees are more concerned with what they know, or what they think they know about God, the man born blind only comes to know through his first-hand experience of the grace of Jesus Christ. There is no intellectual substitute for experiencing the grace of Jesus Christ. It is only through that grace that any of us come to belief. And yet having experienced that grace, we can get so caught up in our own knowledge and understanding that we become blind to the very grace that changed our lives to begin with. We might get so caught up in the very tasks of the ministry to which we are called only by God’s grace, that we lose sight of that amazing grace at work in our lives.

But that is what ministry is really all about. It is sharing the good news of God’s grace with others. It is standing with others and saying, “Let me tell you about the Jesus I know, about how God’s love changed my life.” Ministry is pointing, with our stories, with our questions, and with our lives, to the man called Jesus. It is listening for the question that is begged but rarely asked, “What do you say about Jesus?” Our task is to answer that question, to equip and encourage others to answer that question, in word and in deed, by the grace of God. May it be so.

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