4/27/2014 Sermon – Impossible #4: “Opening Our Tomb”

09871_12John 20:19-31.  When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 

27Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. 

Cemetery4The gospels go to great lengths to show that Jesus really was dead when he was put into the tomb.  Then they go to great lengths to show that he really was alive when he came out.  I think you know what this means for us.  Jesus is the “firstborn from the dead.” (Colossians 1:18) He leads the way out of death – he rises – and we follow.  He has done what we will do.  We will live again.  The new life Jesus offers through faith can begin right now.  So, that means there is more than one way to be dead.

I think most of us are familiar with John 3:16  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

But I wonder if you’ve paid attention to verses 17-19:

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.  Those who believe in him are not condemned (dead); but those who do not believe are condemned (dead) already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.  And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.

We live in this state of spiritual death, this condemnation, this separation from God, until Jesus brings us out of that tomb, out of that death.  There’s a part of our nature that wants to live in destructive ways.  Inside the tomb are things that we know instinctively aren’t good for us.  Things we do, things we drink, things we smoke, places we go, relationships we shouldn’t have.  The tomb can be any preoccupation or obsession with something that keeps you from God.  Before you get consumed by guilt and can’t listen to anything else I say, try to understand that we are all in this tomb in some way, and we all need the power of God to bring us out, to make us live again.  The disciples – and all of us – are in a tomb until Jesus leads us out.  I want to show you how he does that.

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  John 20:21-23

Peace be with you.  Peace.  Relax.  In Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus and the angel first see Mary, they say, “Don’t be afraid.”  Relax, God says.  I’m not here to hurt you. When Jesus comes to his friends who are in hiding, Three times he says, “Peace be with you.” (vv. 19, 21, 26)  This isn’t just a hello, it is something angels say in the Old Testament to calm down frightened people (Judges 6:23; Daniel 10:19).  Who is this?  They don’t recognize him.  Jesus really died and they were not expecting to see him again.  It’s not until Jesus shows them his hands and side that they know who this is. So, the first thing Jesus does is calm us down.  Peace.  Relax.  One of the biggest problems with our faith is our inability to just stop, be still, look around, get your bearings, let go  of your anxiety, and understand what God is saying.  Hear that voice of God saying, “Peace.”

Then Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.”  As we soak in God’s peace, Jesus starts to explain the mission.  Jesus didn’t come out of the tomb just to show us that he could do it. It’s not some trick he did to impress the world; it’s for a purpose.  It’s for us.  God sent him, God brought him back to life.  When we believe, God brings us back to life and sends us.  It’s not just a trick with us either.  There is something God wants us to do.  But first, we need the tools.

When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. (vv. 21-22)  Sounds a little strange until you remember that in the book of Genesis, it’s with wind, or breath that God creates and gives life (Genesis 2:7).  In Hebrew, wind is the same word as Spirit.  Who is this?  Who is this who is able to give life with his breath?  It’s God. You see, until this point in John’s gospel, although there are strong hints, nobody has told us exactly who this is, but because of him, something special is happening to this little group of people hiding out somewhere in Jerusalem.

First, they believe Jesus is alive – they have faith.  Then they are given the Holy Spirit – God enters them because of that faith.  Their lives are different from that moment on. They are different people.  They are alive.  God did this; this person speaking to them is God. First, we know God is at work because Jesus came out of the tomb.  Now we know God is at work because these people are changing.  The impossible is happening – to them!  They are believing and receiving the Spirit.  Faith does not mean you are changing yourself.  Faith means that you have believed Jesus is alive, given yourself to him, and allowed God to go to work.  You’ve said, “God, I can’t come out of this tomb.  I want to, but I can’t.   I trust you to bring me out.”

There can be a moment when light shines in your darkness and you realize that God is truly with you and is stronger than the tomb. You have a chance to breathe again, big gulps of fresh air.  You have a chance to start over.

But you can’t keep this new life just for yourself.  Now Jesus gives us marching orders: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  In other words, “through the Spirit, I am now in you, so do what I have been doing: forgiving sins.  Some who listen to you will believe what you say and some won’t.”  Some will want forgiveness and some won’t.

Do you remember last week, Easter Sunday, when Jesus made his first public appearance to most of the disciples (in the Gospel of Matthew), there were some who doubted, even with Jesus standing right in front of them?  And it’s personal for that little group hiding behind a locked door, probably still blaming themselves for what happened to Jesus.  “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  He is saying, don’t do that.  I forgive; you forgive.  Then to close out the gospel of John there’s a story of reconciliation with Thomas and another with Peter.

forgiving t-shirtI think it’s awesome that we had church members wearing these shirts at the last community breakfast here at St. Paul’s.  For – giving.  Forgiveness is a big deal.  I think it’s what the world is craving and the one thing we all need to learn.  Forgiveness is something we all need to support each other in doing.  It’s a very hard thing God is asking us to do.  And you might be thinking to yourself, can I forgive… whatever situation that came into your mind?  Maybe you should ask first, “can I be forgiven?”  God says yes.  And God gives us orders to go out on a mission of forgiveness.

Be God’s representative.  Be a channel of forgiveness.  Let somebody off the hook. I don’t have words to describe how important this is.  The people who walk into this building need to sense an atmosphere of forgiveness.  They need healing.

There’s a Spanish story of a father and son who had become estranged. The son ran away, and the father set off to find him. He searched for months to no avail. Finally, in a last desperate effort to find him, the father put an ad in a Madrid newspaper. The ad read: Dear Paco, meet me in front of this newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your Father. On Saturday 800 Pacos showed up, looking for forgiveness and love from their fathers.

Christian singer Matthew West wrote a little piece about forgiveness that goes like this (excerpts):

…while I am being honest, I should probably confess that I have a hard enough time forgiving the person who cut in front of me at the grocery check out, or my wife when we find ourselves at odds, let alone someone who has done irreparable harm to myself or my family.  Yes, unfortunately holding a grudge is something I do quite well.  How about you?  Is there someone in your life who wronged you?  Maybe a relationship that has been severed because a lie was told or trust betrayed?  Or perhaps,  …you hold on to a deep resentment that you carry with you every moment of every day.  Maybe…  someone has stolen away something or someone so precious to you that you can never get back.  Big or small, forgiveness can be a seemingly impossible bridge to cross.

In Philip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing About Grace?, he describes forgiveness as an unnatural act.  I could not agree more.  He writes, “I never find forgiveness easy, and rarely do I find it completely satisfying.  Nagging injustices remain, and the wounds still cause pain.  I have to approach God again and again, yielding to him the residue of what I thought I had committed to him long ago.  I do so because the Gospels make clear the connection:  God forgives my debts as I forgive my debtors.”

Forgiveness makes little sense, as long as we are the ones being asked to forgive.  It goes against everything we feel inside when we are the wronged party.  And being the flawed humans we are, we do have our limits.  However, when we are the ones in need of forgiveness, well, isn’t that quite a different story?

C.S. Lewis wrote, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” Let us always be mindful of our own deep and endless need for forgiveness, and grateful for the limitless forgiveness that is extended to us through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

Let us be grateful that He did not wait for us to make the first move. “For God demonstrates his great love for us in this; while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8.)”  He initiated forgiveness of our sins, and in doing so, released its healing power into the lives of all who accept.

[http://matthewwest.com/the-stories/the-story-forgiveness/]

The stone is rolled away from the tomb for all of us.  God did that.  It was our sin that Jesus on the cross and he is waiting to put his arms around us and say, “It’s all right.  It’s all right.”  Your faith in him brings the forgiveness you’ve been looking for. We just have to look up and see the way out of the tomb.  Take that step with Christ – you’re free!  And so we pray.

Prayer

Guide us and guide our church, O God, into a new sense of what it means to live for you and have faith in the resurrection of your son Jesus.  Bring us out of our tombs and give us the strength to stay out, day by day, with you. Teach us daily how to forgive, and through us, help others understand your good news of forgiveness.  Give us peace; teach us patience. Touch with healing those who need it most. Help us find strength and confidence in your presence.  And help us grow into a deeper appreciation for the privilege of worship, for this is a special place and a special time, and we have had a special experience through meeting Jesus Christ, – our risen Lord. Amen.

4/20/2014 Sermon – Impossible #3 “Carved in Stone”

Sunset - Mt. Joy long
Mount Joy, PA. CN – 4/16/2014.

You probably know the ancient Christian greeting that’s being said across the world today:  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed! Indeed, he is not in the cemetery anymore.  This is the day when God does the impossible.  We are not people who practice religion.  We are people with faith in an event and a relationship with a person.  That person named Jesus has changed our lives, and that’s why we are.  Let’s hear the story as Matthew tells it….

Matthew 28:1-10.  After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he* lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead,* and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’*

I had a distant cousin who came up to me at a family funeral many years ago with a question.  At the time, I was closer to my days of teaching art and he wanted to know if there was a way to put a picture on a tombstone in a way that would last.  His picture.  His image.  He was serious.  And we talked about a silk-screening process that can put a ceramic photograph on any smooth surface.  An image fired in a kiln on a tile.  Permanent, more or less.

photo grave markerToday, you can actually have a photo etched by a computer “printer” on the stone (like this one – left).  The memory lives – until nobody remembers that face in the picture.

There is something in us that reaches for immortality.  We fight a losing battle against death. You younger people think that this doesn’t apply to you, but you should take a walk through a cemetery and read the dates.  Not everyone buried in the local cemetery lived to a ripe old age.  We all want to cheat death as long as we can and we all believe that if the memory of us lives on, we will live on.  But we die and memories fade.

Brooklyn, NY. CN - 2009
Early 18th century headstone. Brooklyn, NY. CN – 2009

It’s easy to get lost in the hopelessness.  I know that this is depressing, and the bubble over some of your heads is reading, “Okay, it’s Easter; get on with the good part!”  In our culture, we need warm and fuzzy.  But on this day, of all days, for the resurrection of Jesus to have any meaning in our real lives, we have to remember that this was a real death that Jesus died.  It was a real cemetery, just like any of ours.  It was real sin that put Jesus on the cross.  Is death real?  Yes.  And so is the resurrection.  So is the living Jesus.  And so is the ministry that Jesus calls us to as St. Paul’s United Church of Christ (or whatever Christian community you are part of).

Don’t Be Afraid, Tell the disciples, Go to Galilee.  That gospel story is about real life and real death.  Death and life.  It’s about a strange thing that happened in a real cemetery.  Strange but true!  It’s a shock to the system.  It’s actually like an idea for an action/suspense movie:

  •  It starts with a quiet, oppressive sadness.  Two women named Mary are walking toward the tomb of Jesus. Thinking about, talking about the execution death of their teacher/leader/healer Jesus.
  • The images of the cross are still haunting them as they walk
  • Then there’s an earthquake.  Have you ever been in an earthquake?  I’ve only experienced a mild one, but it was enough to make me realize that there are forces in the world no one can control and then…
  • …an angel rolling back the stone from the tomb.  The guards faint, the women run, right into…
  • …Jesus, who is not dead anymore.

The picture changes so quickly and so completely, that lost in this confusion are the things that Jesus and the angel say to these women.  They are so shocked, the words have to be repeated.  This is where the followers of Jesus start to receive their mission, and this is where the world starts to change.

The angels say, “Don’t be afraid.”  I would think that’s appropriate for the moment.  “You’re looking for Jesus, who was crucified.  You were expecting to find him dead but he isn’t.” That certainly would have freaked me out; I would have needed to hear those word.  In a larger sense, any call to ministry begins with overcoming fear.

Now go tell the disciples.  Could Jesus have appeared to the disciples instantly, without having to trust these women?  Probably.  But from the beginning, Jesus trusts everyone to share news about his resurrection, which is main, primary  content of the New Testament – and our faith.

Then go to Galilee.  Get used to traveling; our faith in Jesus needs to go on the road.

When the women see Jesus he says the same thing, “Don’t be afraid.  Tell the disciples. Go to Galilee.” 

Hiking
Hiking the ancient route from Jerusalem to Galilee. CN – 2011.

Go to Galilee?  They were still in Jerusalem when Jesus gave them their mission.  These two women named Mary, who are the only ones who have seen him, now have to go tell everyone else that Jesus is alive… and will meet them back home, a 10-day walk away through some pretty rough terrain.  They must have been pretty strong witnesses.  It’s one thing to go back to the disciples, who are probably hiding on the upper room, and convince them that Jesus is alive.  If they were here in Manheim, the women also have to convince us to meet Jesus in Pittsburgh – and we’re walking there.  It’s a test.

If you want what Jesus has to offer, you have got to come out of hiding, leave your cemetery thinking, leave that place, leave the things that are keeping you dead, and trust what Jesus says.  Stop living in the past, reach out and grab the new future.

On the way to Galilee, the disciples had to decide whether they really wanted to be a part of this group, and whether they really believed in Jesus. And they had plenty of time to think about it.  So by the time they got where they were going, some doubted.  Even with Jesus standing right in front of them, some doubted.  Wasn’t this supposed to be easy?  Why couldn’t Jesus just say what he wanted to say right there in Jerusalem?  Why did we have to walk all this way and climb all the way up here?  Isn’t it easier to just stay home and be occasionally religious?  Can’t we just be comfortable?

Jesus says, “Go to Galilee.  Go to the mountain. I’ve got a job for you.”  It’s a test of faith.  Jesus has faith in us.  He wants to know if we have faith in him.  Jesus wants to know if we’re obedient.  Jesus wants to know if we’re going to go to the mountain in Galilee if he tells us to.  If we won’t go to the mountain as his disciples, then how can he trust us to go the nations?

But here’s the real test of faith: we got these orders to go to the mountain by somebody who just walked out of a tomb.  I can hear it from our families now.  “Who told you to do this?  You heard this from whom?  I thought he was dead!”  From this moment on, everything we do is a statement of our faith in the resurrection of Jesus.  Our good intentions can never replace the power we get from our faith in the man who died for us and then overcame death.

People of God, Jesus said, “Go to the mountain; I’ve got a job for you.”  When we get to the mountain, Jesus has a mission for us, should we decide to accept it (don’t forget, some of us are going to doubt and turn the other way).  We’re going to baptize the nations.  Through the power of Christ, we’re going to change the world.  We are going to make a difference through the love of Christ.  We’re going to feed them and love them and tell people that he’s alive.  God will use that good news to make difference.  And he’ll be right there by our side – it’s a promise.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.

 Prayer

O God, on this day you amazed the world.  You took the worst that the human race had to offer and turned it into the best thing that ever happened.  You saved us.  You make life out of death. Now bring life to us.  Make the living Jesus real to us in ways we’ve never experienced or expected.  Help us make him our Lord.  Help us remember that he is the master of our lives and of our church.

Bring us out of the tombs we live in and send us on a mission.  Take away our desire for the things that kill us and bury us, and use us to bring life to the world you love and sent Jesus to die for.  Give us opportunities to show people that Jesus lives in us.  Heal our relationships, give us a greater ability to love and forgive. Make us like him.  Give us eyes that are sensitive to pain and injustice, and hands willing to do something that makes a difference here in Manheim and everywhere else where we have an opportunity to serve.

We pray with faith that as we give ourselves to you, you will give us the kind of life that never dies, because of the risen Jesus.  Amen.

Why have you forsaken me? (4/18/2014 – Good Friday)

DSC_9987Matthew 27:45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ 47When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘This man is calling for Elijah.’ 48At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49But the others said, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.’

Of Jesus’ seven words from the cross, this one might be the most gut-wrenching.  Jesus quotes the feelings of David from Psalm 22 – when he was surrounded by enemies, feeling cut off from any hope.  As Jesus says these words, he is at the height of agony as our sins are dying with him on the cross.  He speaks directly to God, confronts God.  And  as much as we want to clean it up, it is not pretty to look at.  This is the part when we want to look away; we can’t watch this.  Don’t let the children see this.

Detail of Raphael's "Crucifixion."  1502 -03.
Detail of Raphael’s “Crucifixion.” 1502 -03.

But the image of the crucifixion is fixed in our minds, through the jewelry we wear and the religious symbolism in our church buildings.  Artists like Raphael (above) have tried to portray it for centuries, and over the years, it’s become art and our culture tends to want to keep the crucifixion sanitized for general audiences.  Rated G. Most of the time, the Jesus we see on the cross is serene, more or less at peace with the awful thing that’s happening to him.  Not really in pain.  His arms almost seem to embrace what’s happening.  He almost looks like an Olympic diver being spotted by some helpful angels.

Grunewald's "Crucifixion."  1498.
Grunewald’s “Crucifixion.” 1498.

But about 500 years ago, there was a German artist named Matthias Grunewald, who saw this moment in a different way.  His painting of Jesus on the cross, at this moment of feeling forsaken, hung in a monastery.  The monks at this monastery had a tradition of caring for the terminally ill.

The cross in this painting a rough piece of wood and the Jesus on that cross barely looks human, he is so beaten and maimed.  When you look at this painting, your attention is drawn to his hands.  His fingers are tense and stretched out.  He is in deep pain.

Just out of the picture, seated on the ground, are people who are dying.  They are also beaten, and maimed, and sick.  When I stand in front of that painting, I am one of the crowd, and I remember that Jesus has carried my pain and suffering to the cross.

This is the forsaken Jesus: the Jesus with a dying body, racked in pain.  This is the Jesus who walked straight into death and all it feels – and all it means.  Agony, separation from God.  Sin.  This is Jesus paying the penalty for sin that wasn’t his.

It’s noon.  It’s dark.  The clouds are gathering.  There’s a slight rain.  This is a muddy place outside the city wall. Bloody, naked men on crosses, with a small group of people – mostly women – standing around the middle cross weeping.  But most of the people walking by these crosses don’t pay that much attention.  It’s not the first time Romans have executed people and it won’t be the last.

It’s a disgusting scene.  We tend to think of it as barbaric, since people aren’t crucified today, are they?  Maybe just in other ways.  Through these images, and these words, we remember that through Jesus, God has been there.  He did it for us.

My God, my God, where are you?  Why did you leave me?  I’ve said that.  We experience the pain in different ways, but I think most faith, most depth of the spirit comes through pain.  It comes in that moment we understand how weak we really are.  Of all the seven last words, this is an expression of the worst of humanity, and the best of God.  The worst of our sin being put to death by a God who loves us too much not to stop it.

The miracle of Jesus is the life that came from this moment of pain and death.  Our reason for hope came from this moment.  Our reason for real peace, real joy came from this moment.

This is Friday, a dark Friday, but Sunday’s coming.

4/13/2013 Sermon: Impossible #2 – “Restoring Our Image”

You know, I have always wondered what Jesus looked like.  Scripture never describes him.  The physical appearance of Jesus wasn’t important to New Testament writers, so we don’t really know.  What we get is little glimpses through the things he does, like weeping, which he does twice in the gospels.  Like the anger he shows when he turns over the tables of people selling things in the Temple. Very human emotions.

When he rides into Jerusalem at the beginning of this week, there was an enthusiastic crowd to greet the hero.  I think we know that part of the story, and the things that happen next.  Jesus has been telling his closest friends what will happen – he will be betrayed, killed, and then rise from the dead.  Even though he says these things very clearly, they don’t get it.  They don’t get it at all.  He is describing an impossible combination of things.

Betrayed – okay; those things happen.  Killed – as we walk with Jesus, that doesn’t seem likely, but okay.  Rise from the dead?  Now that’s a stretch.  It’s impossible.  It’s impossible if you can only think that Jesus is human.

The Apostle Paul described Jesus best:

Philippians 2:4-11. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. 

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 

Last Supper - da Vinci 1498

I’m sure you’re familiar with Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper.”  Many, many churches have this image hanging somewhere in their buildings.  A lot of people have it somewhere in their homes.  We’ve got it on a large wall hanging, in the hallway, just the other side of the door to the sanctuary.  Maybe some of you have seen the real thing in Milan, Italy.

For a lot of us, this is what Jesus looks like.  When someone says those words, “last supper,” you just might be thinking about this painting – one of the most famous paintings of the Renaissance, this period in history about 500 years ago.  You’ve seen it in books, on wall plaques, and in needlepoint. I’ve seen it in tatoos, and mimicked in hundreds of ways.  It’s imprinted on our minds.

"Last Supper" wall hanging at St. Paul's United Church of Christ, Manheim, PA.
“Last Supper” wall hanging at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, Manheim, PA.

I’ve even seen it as a living “tableau” at a church – like a living nativity scene, where “actors” sit down and re-create this last supper scene.  Jesus is sitting at the center of his 12 disciples, and he has just told them that one of them will betray him.  He has a sad expression on his face and each of them along the table has a different reaction.  One of the most powerful images in paint I think I’ve ever seen.  It is almost overwhelming to stand in front of it.

It’s on the end wall of what had been a dining hall (refectory) in a monastery. Compared to what you probably expect, it’s huge – about 15×29 feet.  When you see a copy of da Vinci’s Last Supper, if it’s a good photograph, you see that the painting actually isn’t in very good condition.

Leonardo used the wrong kind of paint on the wrong kind of surface, and it’s actually a miracle that we even know it exists.  Most reproductions look better than the original.

In preparation for its 500th anniversary fifteen years ago, da Vinci’s Last Supper was restored.  The painting, and the building it’s in, have taken a lot of abuse over the years.  You can see where there was a doorway knocked through the wall at Jesus’ feet in the 1700’s. bombed

In World War II, a bomb destroyed most of the building except for this wall, which was covered by sandbags.  It really is a miracle that the Last Supper has survived.

It took 20 years to scrape 500 years of filth off.  And now you can go to Milan, Italy, and see a much brighter, clearer painting of the Last Supper, the last meal shared between Jesus and his closest followers. But this is controversial; not everyone was happy about how the restoration turned out.  It cost $8 million over 20 years, and as much as 80% of what you see is not the paint that da Vinci’s put on that wall.  But it looks cleaner, right?  Compare to 1975…

Last Supper - Leonardo

So, is that the real Jesus in this painting of the last supper?  That question almost changes the subject, doesn’t it?  I should be asking, “Is that the real Jesus of da Vinci?”  How could da Vinci know what Jesus looked like? It’s true, he was 500 years closer to the time of Jesus than we are.  But he didn’t really know.  He could only give his impression of what Jesus looked like.  Some people really think that’s Jesus.  I hope it doesn’t burst any bubble you might have, but Jesus probably didn’t look like that, and the Last Supper probably wasn’t at a long table with a table cloth.  But it goes deeper.  Much deeper.

This week, our image of Jesus needs a restoration.  We need to strip away the retouching we’ve put on over the years – the things that make our Christianity convenient, easy to accept, easy to understand, easy to tolerate.  You cannot get to Easter without taking a trip through a gut-wrenching Good Friday.

Christianity was not convenient for Christ.  This week, we need to see a cross.  We need to see death.  We need to see an empty tomb and know that God will work amazing changes in our lives if we will only believe.  God will do the impossible in us.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus ”  That is what faith does in us.  As we believe in the risen Jesus, worshipping him as Lord, we begin to have the mind of Christ.  People begin to see Christ in us. Where should people see Jesus?  In us.

Let’s hear that scripture again from “The Message”:

5-8 Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.

9-11 Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.

Are you starting to get a picture of Jesus?  At the time he was writing to them, Paul was in prison, toward the end of his life, and I can imagine him in some sort of confinement with guards outside the door, and he realizes that he is going to be with Jesus soon, and that’s okay.  Jesus has him.

To this church in Philippi, he quotes an early Christian hymn that says these things about Jesus.  A song that helps believers remember who Jesus is and paints a picture in their minds.  Maybe you can hear him singing…

Christ is God.  Christ was before Israel or Pennsylvania or any church.

Christ is a servant, a foot-washer.  As God, what Christ did for us was a choice.  God didn’t have to save us.

Christ died – on a cross.  He did not have a long, happy career as Savior and then retire.  He died a horrible death for us.

Christ is alive – God raised him from the dead.

Christ is the ruler of the universe. Every knee bends, every tongue confesses that he is Lord – this same Christ who rode on the donkey into Jerusalem on the way to humiliation.  He didn’t have to do that for us, but he did.  He didn’t have to come, and he didn’t have to care.  But he did.  His concern was for others, for you and me.

Paul says, “let the same mind be in you.”  In your lives as Christians and in your life as the church, “let the same mind be in you.”   Christians of Manheim and St. Paul’s – wherever you are – have the same mind.  “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

The story goes that it took da Vinci seven years to paint “The Last Supper,” finishing in 1498.  Maybe it was hard work; but it is also well-known that da Vinci was a major procrastinator and had trouble staying focused on a project.  The legend goes that starting out, Da Vinci wanted to find the perfect model for Christ for his portrait. Da Vinci always used real people in all his portraits and paintings, so he always searched for just the right “actors.”  Maybe that was one of the reasons that this painting was famous almost as soon as it was completed.

Last Supper - Christ - LeonardoAccording to the *legend, “hundreds and hundreds of young men were carefully viewed in order to find a face and personality showing innocence and beauty, free from the scars and signs of dissipation caused by sin.” Eventually, after searching for weeks, a young man, 19 years old, was chosen. For the next six months, Da Vinci worked on the portrait of Christ as he saw him, saw the Messiah, in the face and personality of this young man.

When he had finished the Christ figure, da Vinci worked on the search for the faces of the other disciples around that table in the upper room. One by one, over the next six years, Da Vinci searched and worked.

Finally, the work had progressed to the point that there was only one face left to find – that of Judas Iscariot. It was a face that da Vinci had purposefully left for last. With the painting almost done, he went on a search like the one he had at first – looking, studying faces in crowds for just that one face – the face – that would tell the story behind the story. He was looking for Judas.

JudasThe search finally took him to a dungeon in Rome, where he had heard there was a man who was thought to be the very image of what he was looking for. When he met him, da Vinci was not disappointed.

Here was Judas; here was a man with a dark soul – a wretched man, an unkempt and vicious human being.  This was the perfect Judas!  That’s him, his face in shadow, clutching his money-bag tightly (and no, that is not Mary Magdalene next to him; it’s John the beloved disciple, who was known to be very young at that time!).

By special order of the king, the prisoner was released into da Vinci’s custody for the next several months. For both days and nights, the portrait of Judas was painted into the scene. There he sat, at the right hand of Jesus, clutching the money bag tightly in his fist.  The portrait was completed and the prisoner was returned to the dungeon.  But as he turned to leave, da Vinci suddenly found himself in the grasp of the prisoner crying out, “O, da Vinci, look at me! Don’t you know who I am?”

When he looked more closely, da Vinci said that he did not know the man. “O, da Vinci,” the man began to cry, “I am your Christ!! I am the man you painted seven years ago as Christ! O, God, have I fallen so low?”

Really, that could be us.  One day we look like Christ, the next day we look like something else. It’s called being human.  The amazing thing is that God loves us in spite of it all, and sent Christ to save us.  We are God’s restoration project.  When God strips away the appearances, the distractions, the busyness, the false priorities, there is a void that only the living Christ can fill.  And Christ living in us will make us into the people we should be.  Only God can help us have that “same mind.”

Prayer

God, you are able to do miracles in people’s lives.  You are able to heal, you are able bring peace.  We believe; help our unbelief.  Break down our walls and help us see a glimpse of the life we can have simply by expressing our faith in you.  Give us the courage, and the willingness, and the circumstances to step out for you.  Take away our fear of commitment.

Help us communicate to our world that we are followers of yours, followers of the living Jesus, not just church members.  Then give us dark places to go where we can carry your torch, showing the world that life is not as hopeless as it might look right now.  Through your Spirit, give us a supernatural ability to resolve anger in helpful ways, and the patience to be compassionate.  Help us carry each other along the path you’ve given us to walk, following your son Jesus.  Amen.

 *retrieved from www.homileticsonline.com, April 16, 2000

4/6/2014 Sermon: Impossible #1 “Visions of Life”

Some really difficult situations don’t seem to have a way out.  You don’t see a way – until God makes a way.  Sometimes, the situation we’re in seems impossible to resolve with anything like a happy ending.  This scripture from the prophet Ezekiel begins with impossibility, but God has the last word….

La Isabella, Dominican Republic.  CN - 2010.  Excavation of a cemetery in the first European settlement in the western hemisphere, established by Christopher Columbus in 1493.
La Isabella, Dominican Republic. CN – 2010. Excavation of a cemetery in the first European settlement in the western hemisphere, established by Christopher Columbus in 1493.

Ezekiel 37:1-14.  The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ 4Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath* to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath* in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’

7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath:* Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath,* and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

 11 Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’

The prophet Ezekiel was a young man when the Babylonians captured the city of Jerusalem in 597 B.C.   He and 10,000 others of the Jewish upper classes, the leaders of the kingdom of Judah, were then exiled 800 miles away in Babylon, which is in Iraq today.  Beginning about 50 years later, these Jewish people, mostly the next generations, were gradually allowed to return, but in Ezekiel’s time, their lives were hopeless. They were stuck in a hard place in the worst way.

When they left Jerusalem, even though their army had been defeated, at least the city and the Temple (slide) were still intact, so the exiles imagined that they had something to go back to. But it was only a few years after the exile that the peasants who were still back in Jerusalem rebelled and the city and the Temple were burned on August 14, 586 B.C.  (Ezekiel was very specific about dates).

The Flight of the Prisoners - James Tissot.  1902
The Flight of the Prisoners – James Tissot. 1902

So, God’s people are in a place where they don’t belong, taken there against their will, and home, at least as they knew it, was gone.  Scholars think that it was during this time of exile that much of what we call the Old Testament was collected into the form we have today.  The Jewish people in exile are having to concentrate on who they are and where they came from.  They do not want to become Babylonians; they do not want to lose their identity.  How can this get better?  It’s seems impossible.

Today, they woke up again – in Babylon, the place where they don’t belong.  They have every reason to be hopeless. They are losing themselves.   It’s into that kind of desperate mindset that God brings a strange vision to Ezekiel.

I don’t know if you can relate to this situation: if you have ever found yourself in a place where you know you don’t belong.  There might be a few people who are thinking about a move they had to make and it didn’t go so well.  Whatever it was you thought you were going to didn’t turn out as you’d hoped.  I think there comes a point in every college freshman’s year when they wonder if they made the right choice.  I know that there are many church members who have had to move to a faraway place for work.  You were told it would be temporary.  Or, maybe you simply made a series of decisions that led you down a road you regret.  You’ve woken up, looked out the window, and said to yourself, “This isn’t where I should be.”

DSC_5811Looking out over your future, which is like a valley full of dry bones, a valley full of hopelessness, the voice of God says to you, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ And like Ezekiel, deep in his depression, you might answer, ‘O Lord God, you know.’

Ezekiel is looking out over this disgusting sight, the first chapter of this vision.  God could have given him a vision of spring flowers and puppies.  Frolicking children and celebration. Happy, happy.  But instead he gets bones.  And for Ezekiel, this is the worst kind of nightmare.  It’s much more than a horror movie, more than another layer of depression.  As a priest of God, touching a dead body makes him ritually unclean.  The dead must be buried, must be in tombs, but here is an open field of death, and God has put him in the middle of it.  God knows he shouldn’t be there.  God, what have you done to me?

God is asking: Can these bones live?  O Lord God, you know – God, I don’t know!  I’m going to close my eyes now, and maybe this will all go away.  It’s possible that your situation has felt like that.  It’s not just that things aren’t good, but God has had an active role in making it worse.

Like Ezekiel, you might be thinking, Okay God, you made this mess, you clean it up.  This field of dry bones is your doing.  And at the depth of Ezekiel’s depression, God says to him, “Prophesy.”  Speak.  Speak to the dry bones.  I can fix this, but only with your help.  You have a job to do, Ezekiel. Do your job, and speak.  Snap out of it.  God will not bring life to the dead bones without Ezekiel.  God will not just “fix” your dead circumstances for you.  Ezekiel had to believe God and then participate with God in the new life God was bringing.  God needed Ezekiel to do something:

‘Prophesy (speak) to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath* to enter you, and you shall live. (vv. 4-5)

Ezekiel says the words, and then…  it took a while.

 “…there was a noise, a rattling,

and the bones came together,

bone to its bone.

I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them…

 but there was no breath in them.”

Ezekiel did what God told him to do, and something happened.  But not everything all at once.  Did God fail?  I’m wondering if Ezekiel might have been tempted to walk away at that point.  This is great, God, but not everything I’d been hoping for.  Sometimes we like to think that what we see in front of us is the finished product when what we’re seeing is God’s work in process.

DSC_1855You know, the story could have concluded so much more quickly.  There were these bones, these dead bodies, they came back to life, and everybody lived happily ever after, with a snap of God’s fingers.  But it was a process, a work in progress – and   it…   took…   a…   little…   while… to come together.  God says to Ezekiel, I am not finished and you are not done yet.  We’ve got more to do together.  Ezekiel had to speak again.

 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. (v. 10)

It was a vision for a desperate man, somebody who was deeply consumed by his own depression.  Swallowed whole by hopelessness. It was at the bottom of that pit of despair, that God gave Ezekiel this gift.  God gave him a vision of life – life created from the worst kind of nightmare.  Ezekiel had to work with God to make that happen.  He had to snap out of it and take a step of faith – with God.  The people eventually came out of exile, out of their impossible situation.  And Ezekiel had to make the first step.

DSCN0235Forest service people say that in certain places, there has to be a forest fire every now and then to make the forest healthy.  Life is never the same after a disaster or a major loss, when it seems like you’ve lost everything.  This is when God steps into many people’s lives and gives a wake-up call.  There is hope.  Life may not be the same, but with God in control, it can be the best life ever. But you have to get your head out of your hands, trust God, and go.

I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live…  Ezekiel 37:14
I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live… Ezekiel 37:14

This is your bonus round.  Together, we are prophets to people in exile.  We are the ones whom God relies on, the ones whom God needs to speak if others are going to have life.  We are the voice of hope to people who live in a place where they don’t want to be living.  The world is full of refugees; they need us to bring hope to them.  Whether they sit in these pews, or live behind walls in Palestine, some back-street in Spain, in a remote village in the Dominican Republic, or some hopeless situation in Manheim PA, or wherever you are.  Church, live out the vision God is giving you.  As we say yes to God, God will do amazing things.

 Prayer

God, like those Hebrew people so long ago, we confess to hopelessness. Some of us are in exile today and we need a vision of life.  Through your Spirit, give us the will to step forward into the future you are creating.  We believe, help our unbelief.  We trust you to bring us home through the power that raised Jesus from the dead.  In his name we pray.  Amen.

3/30/2014 Sermon: Where Are We Going? #4: “Where Am I?”

Palestine.  CN - 2011.
Palestine. CN – 2011.

John 9.  As he 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.’ 12They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’

13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’ 16Some 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. 17So 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.’

18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ 20His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but 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.’ 22His 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. 23Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’

24 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.’ 25He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ 26They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ 27He 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?’ 28Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ 30The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’ 34They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.

 35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ 36He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ 37Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ 38He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. 39Jesus 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.’ 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ 41Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.

Most of us have no idea of what it’s like to go completely without one of our senses, and what it must be like to suddenly have it switched on.

Just to get some sense of that experience, watch this video of a young woman’s hearing implant device being turned on and she hears sound for the first time:

Sloan Churman (29) hears for the first time

On YouTube, you can find quite a few videos like that.  They always seem to end the same way.  This serious-looking person, willing to try yet one more cure, dissolves into tears as the hearing device is turned on. It must be overwhelming.  But there’s more to the “cure.”  You can hear, but can you listen?  See and perceive?

A number of years ago, I knew a church member who was the victim of a freak accident.  She was walking along a road and was hit by a boy on a bicycle.  She suffered a serious head injury and eventually lost most of her sight.  Not long after the accident, she had a heart attack and had a 7-way bypass operation.  Then she had to be very careful about her health and as you might expect, went through a brief – but very serious – episode of depression.

Before the accident and her heart problems, I remember her as a very serious, stressed-out person.  Very driven.  Then, after the accident, she was calm, even happy.  I’d say she was even joyful.

She described how precious life was to her, and that she’d made the conscious choice to enjoy it, every minute of it, as long as she could.  People and situations that used to bother her didn’t get much of her attention anymore – because there are more important things.  Like the birds that come to her bird-feeder.  Like the sunrise.  Like a visit from her grandchildren.  Life is too short to be distracted by things that aren’t important.

She told me about things that happened to her because of her blindness and laughed.  Silly things that would happen in restaurants and stores.  She felt like she had seen a new vision of God and experienced a kind of inner healing that had nothing to do with her eyes.  She was starting to see.

On the way toward healing the blind man in the gospel story today, in chapter 8, Jesus is having a conversation with the Jewish religious leadership, actually, more like an argument.  He has been explaining who he is and they just don’t get it, because what he is saying about himself doesn’t make sense with their religious traditions.  We have these rules, you see, Jesus.  You don’t do certain things on the Sabbath.  Good Jews obey these rules.  How can you be the Jewish Messiah, our savior, if you’re healing people on the Sabbath and breaking the rules?

At the end of that argument, they go after Jesus with rocks.  The point he has made is that they just don’t see.  John tells stories about people who meet Jesus to help those who read the Gospel (people like us) understand who this is – so that they see.  This is so important to John that he begins his gospel like this:

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God (John 1:9-12)

Temple model
Model of the 1st century Jewish Temple, Jerusalem. CN – 1989.

At this time of year, I think it’s helpful to watch a Jesus movie, like the one directed by Franco Zefferelli in the 1970’s, “Jesus of Nazareth.”  There’s a new one out – “The Son of God,” and I intend to see it sometime.  In Zefferelli’s movie, this scene with the blind man takes place at the Temple in Jerusalem.  The story doesn’t say that, but why not?  Try to picture that the temple is a huge, formal place.  Not quite like St. Peter’s basilica in Rome, but for Jerusalem in the first century, it’s on that order.  A kind of hilltop Acropolis with a huge ornate building at the center, over one hundred feet tall, surrounded by a double colonnade of pillars.  Imposing.

Temple Mount wall
Southern wall of the Temple Mount, Jerusalem. CN – 2011.

As the story plays out in “Jesus of Nazareth,” Jesus is just going in one of the formal entrances, and the blind man sits outside begging as Jesus walks by.  He is outside of the Temple because of his sin.  After all, blindness is punishment for some kind of sin – either his or his parents.

Trying to put Jesus on the spot, some obnoxious heckler-types grab the blind man and throw him in front of Jesus.  “Jesus, if you’re who you say you are, heal him.”  (This will be quite a trick since this guy has been blind from birth)  The blind man does not want to be touched and has no idea what’s going on.  He’s helpless.  When Jesus puts the mud on his eyes, it hurts.  And the blind man is yelling, “Why are you doing this to me?  Leave me alone!”  This is all against his will; he is being abused and harassed.  He is in agony as Jesus sends him away to wash up.

The pool of Siloam is several hundred yards away, through narrow streets, down some steps, and it’s not an easy walk.  The test for blind man with this mud on his eyes is whether he really wants to be healed or not.  Will he walk this walk?  Does he want to see?  He doesn’t know this guy who smeared the mud on his face.  In the movie, the hecklers practically throw him in the pool.  But I think he probably had to go find it on his own.  And you might be asking, “Why didn’t Jesus just take him to the pool himself?”

It’s not as if Jesus wants to put people like this through just a little more pain.  It might seem like that.  But God nearly always leaves some opportunity for faith.  Faith is the point, not the cure.  When this blind man’s eyes are healed, will he see?  And I don’t mean, “will his eyes work?”  Will he see who this is?  Will he find faith?  Will he know that there is a power beyond himself that heals his spirit?  And he doesn’t “see” right away.

When his eyes start to see things, he sees the water first.  It’s amazing.   What is that?  Then he sees the hecklers.  I see you, and you, and you!  And once the shock of the cure has settled in, the attention shifts back to Jesus.  Who is this guy with the magic mud?

Like many of us, he doesn’t get it right away.  First, Jesus is just like one of the hecklers, harassing him, causing him pain.  Then after his eyes are opened, he says, “he is a prophet.” (v. 17)  Then, finally, “He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him.’ (v. 38)  It took a while.  Faith doesn’t always happen quickly.  Sometimes, even with the evidence “right under our noses,” it doesn’t happen at all.  There has to be a willingness to let go and believe.

Light can hurt.  Coming in contact with Jesus isn’t always a pleasant thing.  Sometimes, in our truthful selves, we’re really hoping that God will bless our blindness instead of heal us and help us see.  It’s comfortable in the darkness.  We’re used to it.  After a while, we don’t even realize we’re in it.

So, in the story of the blind man, who was blind?  Those who refused to open themselves to the possibility that they might be standing in the presence of God.  Those whose strict form of religion and personal prejudices kept them from seeing.

In some way, we are all blind.  In some way, we all hide in the darkness.  And God sees right through us.  God sees that thing we hide.  And God accepts us.  Whatever it is we’ve been trying to hide from God, God knows about it.  He makes some mud and puts it on.  And it hurts.  Then God says, “go wash.”  This process of coming clean with God is painful, maybe time-consuming.  But in the end, if we have faith, we see.  In the end, with God’s help, after that painful mud God puts on our eyes, after we surrender to God’s hands, we change.

Do you know the Serenity Prayer?  I’ll bet you do. You’ll hear the first words and start to say it along with me.  But I wonder if you know all of it.

GOD, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.

Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it.

Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will;

That I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen   (Reinhold Neibuhr-1926)

That’s a great prayer.  Just remember, you aren’t alone.  If you give God a chance, if you believe, God can heal you, make you whole  – even if everything you’ve been praying for doesn’t get fixed.

Prayer

God, you created darkness and light, in what seems like our darkest moments, we for light at the end of the tunnel.  Some kind of a glimmer that will show us a way out. We have each lived with our blindness and the darkness is heavy. We know there is pain and hurt in our relationships, in our living with the past. We know there is pain and hurt in the streets of our country, in the darkness and corners of the world, in our own town.  But we know that you are the one who rolled the stone away from the tomb.  You are the light of the world.  Let your light shine in us and through us. Amen.