How were your eyes opened?

Scripture: John 9:1-41

In this past week, as we have continued to grapple with our life disrupted by COVID-19, as we have refreshed our social media foods and watched TV, there has been too much to digest.

So many questions. So many perspectives. So much information.

And mixed in, of course, are a lot of bad takes. A lot of bad ideas. A lot of bad information.

- We’ve seen images of young Spring Break partiers shrugging off their concerns over getting sick.
- We’ve seen fear and anxiety over this virus get placed on the shoulders of an entire group of people - Asian Americans or Chinese Americans.
- We’ve witnessed conflicting messages from those in charge or seen rumors spread in our inboxes about conspiracies.
- And there are even those who are hawking miracle cures to get rid of the coronavirus.

On one level, I know this is a confusing time. There is so much information coming at us, and there are reasons to ask questions of our news media, our leaders, and the things we hear. We are sorting through all of this, trying to figure out a sense of meaning. Why is this happening? Where is God in all of this? Or, as Robin Apparicio sent to me in an email this week, what are we supposed to learn from all of this?

And on the other level, there is a lot of plain ol’ goofy thinking out there.  Several months ago, I had a great conversation with the President of our church’s board, Ramona Crawford, where she told me that it is the job of those of us who are sometimes older or just more level-headed and wise to shut down “bad thinking” when we see it. It is a Christian act to do.

- When we see some young person shrugging off this pandemic as no big deal, we need to shut them down to save lives - even their life.
- When we witness someone hoarding toilet paper, eggs, cleaning supplies, or heck, even delicious Ledo pizza, we need to shut them down so that there is enough for those behind us in line.
- Especially, when we witness fellow Christians giving into narratives of scarcity and fear and hate, we need to shut that bad thinking down.

What if instead, when we feel those feelings and fear about to take hold, we asked Jesus instead?

Jesus knew how to shut down bad thinking.

In our scripture this morning, Jesus and his Disciples are in or around Jerusalem when they come upon a blind man who has been blind since birth.

Jesus’ disciples ask their rabbi, “Who sinned to cause this man to be blind - him or his parents?”

The disciples were working with a bad theology that they had likely picked up from teachers and leaders and family members around them as they had witnessed a world filled with suffering and struggle. The theology was based on a misreading of wisdom traditions in the Torah. Basically, this shallow way of understanding the world was that if you were successful, you must be righteous, because God always blesses the righteous. And if you are struggling or poor or sick, it’s because God is punishing you - because those who mess up and sin and do wrong are always punished by God.

And look, if the world was that simple, it would be so easy to vote for a President, right? It would be so easy to pick leaders and know which church to go and who to avoid. It would be so easy to judge good Christians from bad Christians.

So, the disciples see this blind man and think, he must be in this situation because he was really bad or his parents were really bad.

Jesus, however, shuts down their bad thinking. He says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

Let’s be careful - the second part of that is not suggesting that God makes people suffer so God can show off.

Rather, Jesus is reminding his disciples that God is glorified not when people are successful and at the top - but rather when lives are made whole. (May want to sit with this or repeat it.)

Jesus then takes some mud to make his point (pick up some mud) - places it over the man’s eyes, and then ironically, sends the man to wash himself in the Pool of Siloam. The pool itself in Aramaic means “sent”. The one who is sent by God commands others to go and be healed. Wow.

When the man does so, suddenly, he can see. He is healed. No longer will we have to spend his days begging to get by, no longer feeling like a burden for his family, no longer stepped over and avoided by busy people on their way to Costco. His life has begun again.

A peculiar thing happens. The people in the neighborhood don’t get it. They look at this now healed man and can’t believe their own eyes. Is this the same guy, the blind guy who used to be a beggar? Nah, must be fake news. Must be a hoax. This man’s own neighbors who have known him since birth cannot see him, cannot understand the good news right in front of them.

They ask him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”

And he says, “A man named Jesus.”

There are two themes I want to draw out for you today from this passage are this -

First, Jesus isn’t afraid of our bad questions or our bad theology or our bad way of thinking.

The disciples were unafraid to put their bad thinking out there when they saw this blind man, and Jesus didn’t hold back from correcting their understanding.

Sometimes, we are like the people saying “then how were your eyes opened?” How can this be? How does this work? Is it possible for God to move in a way we do not understand?

In this time of uncertainty and anxiety, we who follow Jesus are called to go back to the source to figure out how to navigate and be good neighbors in this time. I’m here to help you, but nothing beats opening up your Bible to read and reflect on these stories. Nothing beats taking your questions to God in prayer. Nothing beats asking “I wonder” questions like we heard in our awesome Worship & Wonder story.

An encounter with Jesus opens our eyes. An encounter with Jesus gives us a better understanding of how we are to operate and endure in a world where pandemics claim lives, especially of those who are vulnerable and not well. An encounter with Jesus opens our eyes to see that even those who are struggling around us deserve to be seen, not as failures or sinners, but as targets of God’s energy and love.

Maybe this time when we are working from home is a perfect time to ask Jesus some questions, even if we have a hunch they are some bad thinking. Maybe this season of Lent can be an opportunity to gain new understanding.

Next, God truly desires our wholeness.

Healing stories are so important. In our worship and wonder story, we heard a similar encounter with Jesus and blind Bartamaeus. In both of these passages, we understand that a central part of who Jesus was - his mission and ministry - was healing. He did not come to simply observe how bad things are and report back to God. Rather, he came to get his hands - literally - dirty.

In John 9, if you continue to read the story, you will find a lot of argument and disbelief over what Jesus did. The Pharisees come along and question the now healed man. They are certain that Jesus is a sinner, and in the same bad thinking that the disciples had, these Pharisees are certain that sinners are incapable of good. They tell the healed man, despite the good news he had experienced, “God does not listen to sinners.”

In whatever bad thinking they had, they could not see with their own eyes the very heart of God in display in front of them. And they could not see how far their own bad thinking had pushed them from God’ heart.

Jesus as God’s Beloved over and over again reveals who God loved - those who suffered, those who were waiting for ICU beds, those who silenced, those who are most vulnerable and afraid. God did not send Jesus to just tell them, “Poor thing, everything’s gonna be better soon.” Rather, Jesus came to continue God’s healing work in restoring a broken Creation and broken lives.

Why else would Jesus use mud in this beautiful healing encounter?

Jesus sought to witness to God’s vision for a restored Creation and restored humanity.

That we all might see and know the glory and wonder of our Creator.

For centuries, that meant for Christians, for followers of Jesus, to open their homes, their wallets, their gifts to start hospitals, care facilities, and support for those who were suffering from physical and mental and spiritual ailments. In this time, do we have courage enough to continue that work? Are we still called to it? Are we being sent to go and wash ourselves so that we might see and imagine a new world?

How can we live that out in the coming weeks?

How can we turn to Jesus to let him shut down our bad thinking and help us see anew?

How do we renew our call to live and work for a whole Creation and whole human lives?

I’d really like to hear what you are thinking as your discipleship response in this time - send me an email. Let’s talk.

My friend and colleague, the Rev. Karen Shoecraft-Robu, shared a story on her Facebook profile this past week that exemplified how she is working to open our eyes to God’s healing light.

One year, she and her family left their blue-lighted Christmas tree up well into February, even though they would occasionally get some flack for it. They lived out far in the country, and one night, a woman and her daughters were making their way out that way when they got stuck in mud. They got out and began to walk, looking for help. They passed by houses here and there, spread out in the country, but were afraid to knock. The lights were off.

Then the mom looked up and saw it - a blue glow from a Christmas tree shining in a window.

She told her daughters, “A Christmas tree in February! It must be a sign that this is a safe place to stop and ask to use the phone.”

Karen wrote, “This week, I put our blue-lighted Christmas tree back up in the front window as well as the hand carved nativity I purchased in Bethlehem this past January. They will remain up until we are through this crisis to remind myself and others that the light of God shines in the darkness and the darkness can not overcome it.”

Friends, this past week and the weeks ahead may feel like darkness, but we serve a Savior who came to shine a light bright and open our lives to a love and wholeness that will turn our lives around. How will we let our lights shine?

The how were your eyes opened?

A man named Jesus.


(posted 3/24/20)

Where do you get that living water?

Scripture: John 4:5-14

This has been an unusual and hectic week.

On Thursday afternoon, I was still planning to gather with you here in our sanctuary and welcome those of you who felt brave enough to do so. Less than two hours later as I drove home, the news broke that the State of Maryland as a whole would go into emergency mode. It became clear that we would need to be good neighbors to one another and to our community and follow the advice of the experts - and keep some social distance and do worship online.

Though I don’t always get it right, one of the my reminders this morning is that being a Christian and being part of the church is not about place.

When we say, I’m going to church, for instance, we aren’t making any sense - because WE ARE the church. Wherever we are. Right now, in your homes or on your back porch or out in a camping tent in a remote area of the wilderness, you ARE the church. You can’t go to church because you already ARE there.

Church is not a place or even a what - church is a who - human beings who follow Jesus.

So, today, even though we are practicing our social distancing by gathering online, we are still being church with Jesus at our center.

And it’s been a week where we need to be reminded that Jesus is at our center.

My wife took this image from our local Target. In the mad rush to stock up on supplies and fight back against COVID-19, people are raiding the shelves for anything they can find. Immune support supplements, all kinds of basic medicine, hand sanitizer, bottled water, milk, eggs, bread, meat, and even… toilet paper.

I went on my own to Aldi about middle in the week, and the place was wild. Shopping carts were loaded up out of anxiety and fear over what could happen. It was tough - because in this land of abundance, with our “strong economy”, we were reminded that a lot of us and a lot of our neighbors are worried that there isn’t enough to go around.

I don’t blame them. It’s a scary time, when we may be looking for leadership from our government and not getting clear information. It’s a frightening time, when we are told not to worry by our social media friends and then to take serious measures by health professionals in our midst. We are told not to panic - and yet when we see those carts overflowing with rolls of toilet paper, we too start to worry.

In our scripture today, we hear the beginning of an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. In the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, she is given a name - Photini - and marked as an early saint and leader of the church. By the end of this encounter with Jesus, you will see why - as becomes more of a disciple in the moment than Jesus’ own disciples who have already spent a good amount of time with him.

At Jacob’s Well, Jesus sits for a rest while his disciples go off to the nearest town to get some food for their journey.

While Jesus waits for his disciples to return, a Samaritan woman comes to gather water.

One of our challenges in this text is to always read it fresh, and so while we may have heard some wonderful sermons in the past claiming all kinds of things about the woman by the time of day which she came to draw water or by the way Jesus talks to her, the truth is - she could have just been thirsty or preparing for company or replenishing her supplies on a hot day.

The scandal of this encounter is that Jesus initiates. The woman may not have been interested in talking to this strange Jewish man sitting there by the well. She likely was following her own social distancing protocol - just getting what she needed to return to her home.

But Jesus initiates by asking for a drink.

What follows is another example of Jesus’ radical openness to conversations - and Jesus’ openness to relationship across cultural and religious boundaries.

The woman, Photini, is perhaps confused and taken a back. Samaritans and Jews didn’t mix in Jesus’ day. This wasn’t just because they liked different sports teams or belonged to different political parties - rather, they shared many things in common by way of their faith traditions but over the years as neighbors clashed. Samaritans built their own temple on what they considered God’s holy mountain, while Jews built their temple on Jerusalem’s Holy Mount. Around the time of Jesus’ birth, it was believed that a group of Samaritans entered the Temple in Jerusalem and scattered the remains of the dead in the holy places there. So when Photini states the obvious - that Jews and Samaritans don’t share - she was pointing to all of that history. There was bad blood between Samaritans and Jews. They didn’t trust each other.

Jesus responds to her question by introducing what he has to offer her - living water.

It’s a curious term and really means “spring water” - water that flows continuously.

In a land that can be dry and arid, springs are invaluable and important for communities to have access to fresh water for crops, drinking, and their health - Jesus was drawing upon an image that meant something deep and universal to this Samaritan woman and her people. Life. Jesus was suggesting he had access to continuously flowing water.

The woman responds, “What? What are you talking about? You don’t even have a bucket or a Costco membership? You don’t even have a quarter to get you one of the shopping carts at Aldi? Where do you get that living water?”

The response is funny - it’s fierce. Photini is not gullible. She’s not about to be messed with by this itinerant rabbi. Later, in this exchange, Jesus reveals that he knows a lot about her messy and complex life. For example, he reveals to her that he knows she has had five husbands. But Jesus doesn’t label her a sinner. In that little window into her life, we get a glimpse of someone who has experienced hard times, who has had to make tough decisions, who knows what it is like to have the wells of life run dry. Her response to Jesus shows she wasn’t prepared to take any flack from this itinerant rabbi. She was tough.

“Where do you get that living water?” - it’s a demand for this rabbi to put up or shut up.

Jesus loves this fierceness, so he hits right back. - “I’ve got water that will never leave you thirsty. Water that leads to eternal life.”

Wow. Now Photini is interested. Knowing her life, knowing how she has possibly experienced grief, losing husbands to war, famine, or infidelity, knowing she has had to make late night runs to Aldi or Costco when every shelf seemed to be empty, knowing that it has taken everything to get out of bed some days, knowing that she has been called names and dismissed and ignored. And now, this Jewish rabbi doesn’t just notice her and treat her as a whole human being - he offers her something she has been looking for her entire life.

Living water.

Something in this world that never runs out. That will never fail. That will never come up empty, enough to share, enough to sustain one even into eternity.

This invitation from Jesus comes across as an affirmation - an affirmation of the strength and endurance of this Samaritan woman. Jesus doesn’t just notice her superficially - he sees what she is capable of. He sees what she hungers and thirsts for - a sense of meaning and purpose and fulfillment.

He discards the boundaries of religious difference, remarking that through Him we will no longer fight about where to worship - on this mountain or in this temple. Rather we will worship united in spirit and truth. And in doing so, reveals himself to be the Messiah, the Savior that Photini has longed for her and so many others seek to bring justice, reconciliation, and peace to this parched world.

Photini’s arc in this passage is remarkable - she began as a stranger and becomes a disciple, running back to her town to announce that the Messiah is here.

Near the end of the passage, the disciples stumble back in with their bags of burgers and fries from the local drive thru, giving Jesus and this Samaritan woman the side eye. I’m sure Peter thought, “Jesus, we can’t even leave you alone for one minute and you are trying to get us into more trouble.” So, Jesus lectures his disciples, letting them know that people are hungry and thirsty right now. Are they ready to do like Photini did - are they ready to share this abundant gift?

Friends, in this time of anxiety and fear, our world and our communities need to know that through our Savior, Jesus, there is living water available.

At Costco, the employees were limiting those big packages of water to two per customer, but in Jesus, the supplies are limitless.

It can seem like our leaders can’t even lead themselves out of ditch or offer a clear vision for where we are going, but in Jesus, we are promised abundance now and abundance to come.

Right now, let’s be safe and keep our distance to limit the harm this virus will do to vulnerable members of our community, but let’s refuse to make this distance permanent.

Jesus, our Savior, crossed over religious and cultural boundaries with humor, with care, with courage to share resources and affirmation that others needed. We as followers of Jesus are called to be like Photini and do the same - to share the gift we discover in Jesus - and trust that there will always be more where that came from.

This image of living water challenges us even in how we conduct ourselves as people of faith in this political year. Can we challenge our politicians to creatively work to make our public institutions and our communities more generous and ever flowing? Can we share living water to immigrants who come to our borders? Can we be living water to neighbors who are watching their paychecks dwindle?

Your invitation as you reflect on this sermon and encounter is to share living water.

One church I heard about this week is calling up their senior and vulnerable members and ordering groceries delivered to their doorsteps to care for them - on the church dime. That’s living water.

I want you to make three phone calls or three texts this week to someone in your contact list who may need to be noticed. Someone who may need groceries or support or just hear a friendly voice. Can you call them up this afternoon and offer to pray for them? Can you order their groceries or ask your pastor to do it? Can you push back against the anxiety and fear right now by sharing some of that living water? (And in doing so, model what our world and communities should look like!)

Right now, we need Jesus to show us how to live as human beings together, not hoarding our eggs and milk and toilet paper and virus tests, but sharing with each other across boundaries that divide. We need to see the dignity of each other. We need to be taught how to care for each other anew - to notice those who are coming to our watering holes looking for affirmation and connection. We need to be reminded that we are stronger together, that there is enough water to go around.

Where do you get that living water?

We find it in Jesus, Christ, who we name Messiah and Lord. Thanks be to God for that gift!

(posted 3/17/20)

Presence Matters - Sermon from Feb. 23, 2019

Scripture: Matthew 17:1-9

One of the viral images that has been all over social media because of the movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, about Fred Rogers was this one:

Francois Clemmons was a Broadway performer, singer, and actor who was invited by Fred Rogers on his PBS kids show in 1969 to play the part of a neighborhood police officer. Together, the two, on what was a hot day in the neighborhood, in a show that broadcast to millions of families, made a statement.

Clemmons put it this way -

“He invited me to come over and to rest my feet in the water with him. The icon Fred Rogers not only was showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends, but as I was getting out of that tub, he was helping me dry my feet.”

This image was more than an image of racial unity and human dignity - it was also an image of proximity, the power of being close.

Clemmons and Rogers were close friends. Clemmons has even said that Fred Rogers was like a surrogate father, protective, supportive, and affirming. Part of that affirmation was touch - reaching out to dry his feet as a sign of respect and love.

This morning, I want us to dwell on this power of presence - the power of proximity.

When you read the Gospel stories and look at who Jesus was, there are many different claims - that he was the Son of God - that he was a human like anybody else - that he could do miraculous amazing things. And part of that is what is always intriguing about Jesus, that he is very much like us and at the same time much more than us.

In our scripture this morning, we witness a moment of transfiguration, when Jesus, on top of the holy mountain, appears transcendent. Aglow. Holy. Almost out of this world.

There, Jesus is so in touch with God, so connected that Moses and Elijah show up, and the three have a bit of a conference call. The reception was really darn good up there.

On one level, this whole passages says more to who Jesus IS not than who he is not. Jesus is not Moses, come back to lead the people out of the desert. Jesus is not Elijah, God’s revered prophet, come to drive the wicked out of the land. Jesus is someone more.

Anytime we witness something holy and transcendent, we humans like to bottle it up. Peter has that reaction - he wants to build three huts for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus to dwell on that mountain. Maybe build a new temple. Maybe figure out a way to contain the very presence of God in that place. Maybe even charge an entrance fee at some point.

Wouldn’t it be easy to do that? To just have a life where we can just plug into God’s presence in the midst of all the chaos and confusion just like plugging in our phone to charge?

Then the voice of God speaks, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

Whatever the Disciples thought about that moment - whatever transcendence they felt - dissipates. Suddenly, they cower in terror, falling down, afraid and overcome. God’s voice is terrifying. The mountain might have thundered and shook with the glory of the Alpha and Omega.

And then Jesus - if you pay attention to the scripture again - does something incredible - Jesus reaches out and touches them. Suddenly, this Jesus who was one minute conversing with Moses and Elijah - he is suddenly back among the disciples, among human beings who know what it was like to be afraid and uncertain. Jesus’ touch is reassuring, comforting, removing their fear.

Jesus’ touch reminds the disciples - I am human like you. I am with you. I am close.

Picking them up off the floor, Jesus and the disciples precede down the mountain. The disciples are full of questions but also, I imagine, reassured. Jesus wasn’t staying on that mountain - he wasn’t far away from them and their worries and their inadequacies. He was returning back to the world with them. He was present with them - and that mattered.

This past week, I’ve been really aware of how we are called to be present with each other as a church, as human beings, as followers of Jesus.

- I have listened in and joined in prayer with you for loved ones, for grief, waiting for diagnosis, for the uncertainty of not knowing what lies ahead. I’m grateful you trust me and your elders here in the church with the pain that you share.
- I had the privilege of sharing the stories of suffering from our neighbors - those who are seeking safe, secure places to live that are affordable in our city - to city officials who are trying to figure out how to provide more affordable housing options. I told them stories of Bridge of Hope, Warm Nights, the Day Center, and other ways we are desperately trying to be present with those who may not have anywhere else to go.
- I have recognized how much anxiety there is around this election season, how much anger there is. Maybe you feel that. Maybe you are feeling that.

What do we do with all of that?

In her recent book “After the Good News”, Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd of River Road Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda talks about how so many churches get stuck in the euphoria of the mountaintop moments of our lives. We have success, and we want to keep on marching, marching, marching ahead. But, she says, that kind of movement fails if we are not constantly coming back down the moment and sitting, standing, kneeling, listening to, praying with those people who are experiencing their Gethsemane. She calls it the power of proximity. And it is an antidote from being disconnected and lost on the mountaintop - instead of remaining grounded in what is going on in our lives, in our streets, and in our world.

We are called to be close to those who are suffering. We are called to continue to be close to each other. And in doing so, find Jesus there with us.

And I think Jesus invites all of us to rediscover the power of his touch as an antidote in this time of fear and division. Jesus is ready to reach down and touch any of us who are overcome and afraid - any of us who have collapsed, any of us who find ourselves in the shadow of the valley of death, any of us who think God is gonna leave us in our suffering and torment.

After touching us, Jesus then walks with us down that mountain and invites us to carry on his ministry of proximity.

Who is it that God is asking us touch, church?

Who is it that God is asking you to touch?

The Garden of Gethsemane was one of many incredible spots on my recent trip to Israel and Palestine that brought me close to the presence of Jesus. There surrounded by thousand year old olive trees, a chapel is built over a rock which is believed to have been the very spot where Jesus, overwhelmed and afraid of what was about to happen to him, knelt down and prayed. He prayed in such a way, in such deep intensity that his sweat fell like releases of blood from his head. He prayed for a change of plans - he prayed for God to take the cup of suffering from him. He prayed for the strength to do what he needed to do, even though it would kill him.

As we sat quietly in that sacred chapel, the altar railing was opened, and we were invited to step closer and kneel down in front of the rock. I reached out my hands and was surprised by how cold the rock was to the touch - maybe I had hoped the warmth of Jesus would linger there after two thousand years, that a little bit of his presence would linger, that I could just sense a bit of his proximity.

In that space, I could - and in this week, in the prayers and pain you shared with me and in snippets of conversations with amazing neighbors, I could sense that Jesus was close.

If you are cowering in fear, if you are worried about what is coming, if you don’t know if you have the strength to get through, I want you to place yourself in the shoes of those disciples on that mountaintop. Trust that Jesus knows what it is like to be in your shoes - trust that Jesus has prayed from the depths of his heart just like you. And finally, imagine if you will - or even asking him in prayer - to reach out and touch you.

And finally, after the service is over, when we begin to gather to share some soul food, I hope if you need a hug today. If you need to be embraced today. If you need to weep today. If you just need to be affirmed today - you will receive it. Don’t be afraid to ask. Linger here with us. Jesus has drawn close - Jesus is reaching out even now.

Thanks be to God.

(posted 2/23/20)

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