Friday, February 29, 2008

Blind No More

Lent 4, March 2, 2008
John 9:1-41
Zion Lutheran Church, Twin Valley, MN

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

“I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.”

These lines, from our favorite American hymn, Amazing Grace, were penned by an Englishman, John Newton in 1748. The hymn summed up his own transformational encounter with Jesus Christ—an encounter that led him from being a slave trader to becoming an abolitionist.

I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.”

These words are a kind of shorthand for the experience of conversion….a model for how most folks speak about the work of Jesus Christ in their lives.

I was lost--messed up--a goner. But Jesus found me, rescued me, saved me.

I was blind--stumbling in the dark--totally clueless. But Jesus opened my eyes, shone his light on my path, made me see what I’d been missing.

Lost and blind….now found and seeing. That’s how it is (right?) when Jesus walks into our lives.

Or is it? The blind man here in John 9 might put it this way: “It’s more of a mixed bag really. Jesus brings a lot of good, but he also messes things up. Jesus gums up life for those he transforms. When Jesus has his way with you, nothing will be the same again.”

It’s more than just moving from “lost and blind” to “found and seeing.” It’s wider, deeper, more complex than that. Jesus brings light where he goes. But light isn’t what everyone wants.

Jesus opens eyes, but sometimes we’d rather keep our eyes tightly shut. There are all sorts of blindness. And, as Jesus heals each kind of blindness, some still can’t see—can’t see because they won’t see.

This story from John 9 points out all sorts of things that lead to blindness.

First, there is the blindness of the eye. That’s all this man had ever known. He was “born blind.” Imagine that—imagine NEVER having seen a sunrise or a sunset.

Blindness had immobilized this man. He sat alongside a road, waiting for the generosity of folks who had places to go, things to see.

Unlike other blind beggars we read about in the gospels, this man asks nothing of Jesus. But Jesus gives him everything—everything he ever wanted. Making a poultice for his eyes, Jesus sent the blind man to wash in the healing pool of Siloam. And after that, the man could see. Simple as that. He once was blind—but now he saw. Saw all that he had been missing, all the big, bright, beautiful world that had been “out there” for years.

Jesus makes short work of the blindness of the eye—the physical blindness that had rendered this man’s eyes useless from the day of his birth.

You’d think that that was all this story is about.

But physical blindness is the least serious form of blindness here in this story. And, ironically, just as the blind man’s physical eyes are opened for the first time in his life, just about everyone else’s eyes are closed or clouded in some fashion.

There is, for example, the blindness of apathy in this story. Apathy is not noticing things happening right under our noses.

After the blind man’s sight is restored, it becomes apparent that others around him—the ones who are sighted—actually haven’t been paying that much attention. His neighbors hadn’t really noticed this blind man, though he sat alongside a road they all traveled for years.

The apathy of blindness shows up when passersby are confused. Is that the guy who was born blind—is that him, now up walking around, able to see? Is that him? Or is it someone who looks just like him?

Now who’s blind, I ask you?

Apathy blinds us. A couple of summers ago I took a church youth group to Maine, to the third poorest county in the country. At first glance, you wouldn’t KNOW people were so poor. We had to get off the beaten track, turn off the highway in order to meet fellows like John, an old bachelor whose house desperately needed a coat of paint. We had to slow down, stop, really open our eyes to notice John and others like him.

Apathy blinds us. Folks’ faces might even seem familiar to us—but do we know them? Have we seen them so often that they no longer make an impression on us? Have we grown so accustomed to poverty, blindness, desperation—that we shut out the images of their faces—those who are lacking in our midst?

But apathy isn’t the only thing that blinds us. There is also fear.

Here in John 9 it’s the parents of the formerly-blind man who reflect the blindness that fear can bring upon us. When the local religious leaders question them sternly, the man’s parents adopt a “see no evil/hear no evil/speak no evil” stance. They’re willing to identify their son and to attest that he was blind from birth. But they plead ignorance on the question of how his sight had been restored?

Why? Our text says it was fear that blinded the man’s parents—fear that if they told what I suspect they knew (about the manner and the Agent of their son’s healing!)—the fear that they’d be ousted from their faith community, shunned by the religious gatekeepers.

Fear blinds us, too. Fear cuts us off from possibilities and creativity and imagination. If we’re paralyzed by the possibility that we might make some mistake—why then we’ll never try anything. We’ll let ourselves become stuck in fear, blinded by our anxieties.

But even these two forms of blindness—the blindness of apathy and the blindness of fear—even these two forms of blindness aren’t as serious as a third kind of blindness.

This is the blindness of resistance—resistance to the surprising will and the unexpected working of God in our lives. The blindness of having God so securely boxed in that God couldn’t possibly act in a new, refreshing way.

Here in this gospel text, this is the fiercest, most awful blindness. There is none so blind as the one who WILL not see. The Jewish leaders, the Pharisees in our story have this most severe form of blindness.

You’d think they would rejoice in the healing of the blind man. But no! The Pharisees are so rule-bound that they focus, rather, on the fact that Jesus had broken the law—doing the work of healing on a day reserved strictly for rest.

So, everyone else in the story sees Jesus as a healer. But the Jewish leaders, the Pharisees can see Jesus only as a Sabbath-breaker, a law-breaker.

And if anyone disagrees with them—they will excommunicate him, as indeed they boot the formerly-blind man out of their synagogue. That’s what happens when Jesus walks into our lives—he throws everything into a tizzy, turns things upside down, messes everything up.

All because it is Jesus’ work, Jesus’ assignment, Jesus’ mission to open blind eyes….eyes blinded by physical defect, apathy, fear or the spirit of stubborn resistance. Whatever has robbed you of your sight—Jesus means to take care of that, to heal your blindness.

At the end of this story we’re only sure that two of the characters in it see clearly, with 20/20 vision. Jesus, of course, is one of them. And the man born blind is the other.

At the end of the story Jesus has this man right where he wants him: praising God, down on his knees, worshipping the One who healed him.

The man born blind “sees” better than everyone else—he is no longer held back by the blindness of the eye.

Nor is he paralyzed by the blindness of apathy—for he alone “notices” Jesus and responds appropriately to him—in worship.

This man is not cowed by the blindness of fear either—for it’s apparent he can’t keep his mouth shut the way his parents did.

And he is not captive to the blindness of resistance—for he alone “gets it”—that Jesus is who he says he is, the man in whom God is making all things new.

Where the formerly blind man ends up (on his knees at Jesus’ feet) is where God intends to bring us and all people--alert, alive, seeing fully in the dazzling light of Christ.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Reluctant Witness

Students of rhetoric know that a "reluctant witness" is someone who testifies to a position you wouldn't expect him or her to take. The August 27, 2007 issue of Mother Jones included an article, "Gay by Choice? The Science of Sexual Identity" by psychotherapist Gary Greenberg. It's amazing, really, to read such an article in a "progressive" magazine like Mother Jones (hence my reference to "reluctant witness"). Greenberg seriously entertains the notion that sexual orientation is much more fluid or "plastic" than glbtq activitists are inclined to allow.

Here's a telling section of the article: "...[A]s crucial as this consensus [i.e. that sexual orientation is inborn and immutable] has been to the struggle for gay rights, it may not be as sound as some might wish. While scientists have found intriguing biological differences between gay and straight people, the evidence so far stops well short of proving that we are born with a sexual orientation that we will have for life. Even more important, some research shows that sexual orientation is more fluid than we have come to think, that people, especially women, can and do move across customary sexual orientation boundaries, that there are ex-straights as well as ex-gays. Much of this research has stayed below the radar of the culture warriors, but reparative therapists are hoping to use it to enter the scientific mainstream and advocate for what they call the right of self-determination in matters of sexual orientation. If they are successful, gay activists may soon find themselves scrambling to make sense of a new scientific and political landscape."

The whole article is worth reading. Please note: Greenberg seems highly supportive of glbtq folks and not all that appreciative of religious arguments about homosexuality, which makes his conclusions all the more striking.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Sensory Overload

New Life Lutheran Church, Rothsay, MN
Installation of Pr. Paul Huso
Sunday of the Transfiguration Sunday
February 3, 2008
Matthew 17:1-9

Ever since I took office as bishop last September, folks have been asking me: “So, how’s it going, then?”

Most of the time I say: “It’s going great—but it sure is intense. Sort of like drinking out of a fire hydrant. Stuff really comes at you. Often it feels like ‘sensory overload.’”

Sensory overload!

You know what I’m talking about—don’t you? It happens to all of us, now and then. So much comes at us—sight and sound and experience—that it overwhelms us. We just can’t take it all in. Our mental circuits get “fried.”

I think that Peter, James and John are afflicted by sensory overload here in Matthew 17. And can you blame them?

First, Jesus isolates the three of them, away from his other nine disciples. They climb a high mountain—up to where the air is thin, making them a little light-headed. And then, suddenly, Jesus is “all lit up”—his face shining, his clothes dazzling white. Peter, James and John shield their eyes—so intense is the brightness of it all.

That would have been enough to bring on sensory overload—but there was more. All at once they realize that Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest figures of the Old Testament, were there with Jesus on the mountain. Astounding!

And then a cloud, much like the cloud that led the ancient Israelites through the Wilderness of Sinai—a cloud overshadows them and a Voice—clearly the Voice of God--speaks to them.

Whoa! Sensory overload!

No wonder these three disciples are befuddled, beside themselves. No wonder Peter doesn’t know quite what to say. No wonder Peter, James, and John fall down on the ground—trembling, overcome by fear. Sensory overload will do that to you—turn you into a babbling fool.

Their mental and spiritual circuits were fried. Peter, James and John suffered from sensory overload. It’s a wonder they remembered anything that happened up there.

One of the things sensory overload does is to make us lose our focus. It’s harder to concentrate. We lose sight of what matters most, what we really ought not miss.

There are signs here that Peter, James and John were on the verge of doing just that. The sheer experience washed over them—momentarily blurring their vision, losing track of what was at the heart of it all.

Peter imagines that this wondrous vision is about Moses and Elijah as much as it is about Jesus—he wants to erect not one but three shrines on the mountain. The disciples seem to assume that “this was it”—the capstone, the pinnacle of Jesus’ ministry. What could be more amazing than this transfiguration moment? It wouldn’t get any better than this!

But they were wrong—wrong on all counts.

God the designer of this startling vision of who Jesus was—God didn’t let the three disciples take their eye off the ball. God didn’t allow the focus to be on anyone other than Jesus. Awash in light and dazzling experience—God cut through the sensory overload with his Word: This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.

God made sure that the experience didn’t overwhelm Jesus’ three disciples. God’s Word brought them back to what and Who was central here: Jesus and him alone--and the death he was soon to embrace. Everything else that was going on--the light, the dazzling garments, the Old Testament heroes--all of that pointed to Jesus.

God cut through the razzle and the dazzle, fixing the disciples’ gaze on Jesus. And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

That is, of course, what God is always doing—what God is still up to, even now, today, in the church.

The church’s mission and ministry is all about helping us stay focused on Jesus only.

In the midst of all the razzle and dazzle, the sensory overload that’s always coming at us, God keeps redirecting and refocusing us on Jesus, his Cross, his Resurrection, and his Mission still playing itself out in our world.

That might seem obvious, I know, but think about it for a moment.

Think about all the things that distract us from Jesus.

Take the Superbowl, for example. Talk about sensory overload! The Superbowl is about creative TV ads, a thrilling half-time show, eating and drinking really unhealthy food, placing some bets on what the point spread will be—and, oh!, it’s also about FOOTBALL.

There’s so much hype associated with the SuperBowl that we’re tempted to think it’s sort of a world-turning event. But it’s not. It’s just a game. The SuperBowl can’t save you, give your life meaning, or keep you from dying.

The Super Bowl is not Jesus. So, go and enjoy it—but whatever you do, don’t take it too seriously. It’s only a game…

Think about all the other things that distract us from Jesus.
There’s this presidential campaign we’re in the thick of…

We’re 48 hours away from Super Tuesday, and have you seen enough TV ads yet? Have you decided between the candidate of change and the voice of experience? Have you narrowed it down to the black man, the white woman, the preacher, the Mormon or the war hero? Which will it be?

We really make way too much of politics, don’t we? We treat it like the be-all and the end-all, as if it were a matter of life or death.

But it’s not. Politics is important, and it deserves our sharpest thinking….but it’s not going to determine our ultimate destiny, it doesn’t give us our true worth.

This interminable election season is not Jesus….so let’s lighten up, and encourage others to do the same.

What else distracts us from the Lord of all things?
Think about the good things of this life—our families, our work, our studies, our past-times, our wall-to-wall schedules, our daily engagement in so many things that matter. It can be overwhelming at times. But God finds ways of overshadowing us and speaking to us and saying to us: “The ‘good life’ involves Jesus….listen to him. Don’t miss Jesus.”

Then there’s all the bad things in this life. Think about illness and wayward children and friends going through divorces and loved ones dying. It’s enough to give us a “downer” version of sensory overload. All our circuits get plugged up, fried, by grief, by disappointment, by frustration and failure. But God finds ways of speaking to us, out of our pain, focusing our attention once again on Jesus and Jesus alone.

This is a very good day for us to think about these things. You here at New Life Congregation have come through a months-long process of merging into one congregation. It’s amazing all the steps you’ve taken, all the decisions you’ve made, all the paperwork and forms you’ve filled out. I commend you for sticking with it. I imagine that at times you felt like it was just too much—sensory overload again. But God led you, and I trust, God kept reminding you that when all is said and done it’s about Jesus and him alone. It’s about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection—all of it for you and for me and for the whole creation.

And one more thing. This is what pastors are all about, too. Today as you reaffirm Pastor Paul Huso’s ministry among you, as you celebrate your decision to re-call him to serve this merged congregation, please remember what’s central to his life and work.

It’s about Jesus, it’s about helping you clear the fog of distraction away and cutting through life’s sensory overload and getting refocused again on the one thing needful—seeing Jesus clearly, and keeping Jesus at the heart of all you think and say and do.

That’s what Pastor Huso is good for: speaking Jesus’ Word to you, washing you with Jesus’ water, feeding you with Jesus’ body and blood, filling you with Jesus’ hope, catching you up in Jesus’ mission.

Jesus is for real. He is God for us and God with us. Jesus alone brings new life. Jesus cuts through all the distractions, all the sensory overload. Jesus saves us and sends us and that, dear friends, that is all that finally matters.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

A Prayer for Every Day

"Grant us, O God, to be mindful now of thy presence, that what we think and say, and all we do, may learn to arrange itself as before thy face. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen."

Source: For All the Saints, Volume 1, page 312 (American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 1996). Taken from Love is a Spendthrift, (c) 1961 by Paul Scherer.