Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lent 4A

“He put some mud on my eyes. I washed. And now I can see.”

Simple. To the point.

But, apparently, that wasn’t enough. They wanted a fuller explanation. The religious types couldn’t accept his version of the story. There had to be more to it.

Jesus meets this man who has been blind from birth. With some spit and dust Jesus heals him. Praise be to God! A man who was blind can now see! Isn’t that awesome?!

But not so fast. A controversy breaks out. Was this man really healed? How was he healed? If Jesus healed him, what does that say about Jesus? What does that say about God?

Fortunately, a bunch of pastors appear on the scene to help sort things out, religiously speaking.

“Who sinned? This man or his parents that he was born blind?” they ask. 

A terrible question, isn’t it? Like lots of religious folks, they want to find fault and place blame. They want to point out sin instead of offering forgiveness. They want to beat this guy with a religious stick.

The man’s neighbours can’t believe what they’d seen happen to the man. Isn’t this the same guy who begs on the corner? And wasn’t he blind?

After interrogating this man for the sin of being healed, and being unsatisfied with the man’s answers, the pastors alert the bishop who refers this matter to the disciplinary committee to investigate.

“All I know,” the man tells the committee, “is that this man put mud on my eyes and now I can see.”

Although the man is standing right in front of them, the committee can’t reach a conclusion. So they subpoena the man’s parents.

“Is this your son?” they demand.

“It looks like our son, but we don’t want to get into any trouble. We have no idea how he got his sight back. If you want to know what happened, ask HIM, he’s a big boy,” his parents reply.

They call Jesus back in and say, “Jesus, you don’t have a medical license. You’re not on the clergy roster. You shouldn’t be messing around with things you know nothing about.”

The bewildered and annoyed formerly blind man says, “Look, I don’t know a lot about all that big theological stuff. I don’t have a lot of fancy words. The only thing I know is that a few days ago I was blind and now I can see. 

The committee shares some silent glances.

“He put some mud on my eyes. I washed. And now I can see.” 

That was his testimony.

Simple. To the point.

Sometimes, I think we make it harder than it needs to be. I have, on my bookshelf, a whole section on church growth and personal evangelism. After all, don’t we all want to see our church numbers increase?

There are tons of programs available to help us grow the church. In fact, it’s become a small cottage industry. In some ways, they read like business books, assuming that all the church needs is a marketing plan, simple in theory, complex in execution, to entice people through the doors. Which would help reverse the decline many churches are seeing.

But over the years, I’ve become less and less convinced of their value. While many of these programs have their use, I worry that we place too much emphasis on method, and not enough trust in what God is ACTUALLY doing in our lives.

We make it harder than it needs to be.

But then again, it’s not as easy as it looks. Telling people about what God has done in our lives is a challenge because not everyone welcomes conversations from church folks.

I think the problem isn’t God or Jesus. It’s been my experience that, despite the protests of some high profile atheists and their disciples, most people are NOT turned off by God talk. In fact, most people WANT to talk about God. They simply don’t want to talk about the church. And in some people’s minds the two can be one in the same.

Given the church’s spotty historical record I don’t blame them. When non-church people ask me what I do for a living I’m often hesitant to tell them. I’d often say that I sell fire insurance (which isn’t a lie). I say that not because I’m ashamed of God or the church. I’m proud of what I do, and I’m proud of who YOU are. So neither my job nor the people I serve are the problem.

I’m hesitant to tell people what I do for a living because I know that an onslaught of hostility is probably coming my way, once they find out how I pay my bills. It’s happened more times than not, so I’ve come to expect it.

People often unload on me about the Sunday School teacher who yelled at them. Or the pastor who told them their uncle was going to Hell because their uncle was gay. Or how they’re sickened by the sexual abuse scandals and cover-ups by the Catholic Church. Or how they’re disgusted by the appalling treatment of native children at residential church schools.

And they’re not wrong to be horrified by the Church’s past behaviour. While Christians have been the source so much good in the world, we still have a past (and a present) we can’t escape. 

To ignore, or gloss over, the suffering that the Church has caused over the years and centuries is to do a disservice to our present proclamation. Unless we first acknowledge past sins and heal historic pains, our message of life and salvation in Jesus will always be met with a “Yes, but...”

We can proclaim great gusto, “The Kingdom of God is here among you with love and grace!”

And we might hear in response, “Yes, but...what about that Sunday school teacher who yelled at me for asking the wrong question? That wasn’t very loving."

We may pronounce that “God has made you a unique child, and we celebrate your special, God-given gifts, through which God will do great things in your life!” 

And then we may hear, “Yes, but...then why did Christians try to destroy native culture in those residential schools? That doesn’t sound like celebrating people’s unique gifts.”

We may announce that “Jesus calls all children to God, setting them free from sin, to live as God’s beloved, now and into eternity!”

And in return people might ask, “Yes, but...what about what the priests have done to all those children, then moving the priests around once they were caught, hoping the problem will go away? How were those childen treated as God’s beloved?”

We may boldly declare that “God welcomes you! Jesus loves you, and Jesus died and rose again so that you and all people may have life eternal and life abundant!”

And then we could hear, “Yes, but...what about that preacher who made my uncle feel like God hated him? He didn’t feel particularly welcome at church, among God’s people.”
When people unload on me, I RARELY, if EVER, hear someone say, “I have a real problem with God intruding on my life, so I try to stay away from church.” 

And I NEVER hear someone say, “I have real difficulty with Jesus’ message of peace and forgiveness.”

People’s problems are rarely with God or Jesus. People LOVE talking about God. Peoples’ problems are usually with the Church. 

Rightly or wrongly, they see the Church like the those religious folks in today’s gospel reading who are shocked and angered by Jesus’ act of healing and mercy, blind to what God was doing because... 

...they were too busy protecting the religious institution,

...they were too entrenched in their own religious understanding,

...they clung too tightly to religious tradition that they couldn’t see that Jesus was re-writing the religious rules, to draw more people into God’s circle, to gain more followers for God’s kingdom.

In some ways, I don’t blame them for what they did. Look at their situation. The Pharisees, or religious leaders, were just doing their jobs as protectors of the sacred traditions. Their objection to Jesus healing on the sabbath was a legitimate one, since this type of healing was reserved for the other six days of the week.

And the people couldn’t wrap their heads around what they had just seen because no one had seen that before. They were reacting the same way as we would have if we had seen that happen.

The problem wasn’t their surprise. The problem was that they couldn’t get past their own discomfort at seeing something they couldn’t understand, to see the fresh move of God that was happening right before their eyes.

And God is always doing a new thing. God is always creating a new future.

But God can’t change the past and neither can we. Those are the burdens we carry into the coming years. And I’m sure that we’ll create new burdens along the way.

So what I try to do when confronted with the sins of our collective past, is to hear the pain behind their questions and their stories. And all I can do in response is to honour their concerns by listening with empathy and with sympathy, and tell them what I know about God, and what Jesus has done in my life.

Like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission gatherings that happened this week in Edmonton, where Canadian Church leaders of all stripes, including our ELCIC bishops, came together with First Nations leaders to bring healing to historic wrongs, and to forge a new future built on reconciled relationships, and sacred partnerships. And in doing so, bear witness to the God in Jesus, who reconciled the world to God’s very self.

And for those of us on ground level, our call is much simpler.

I can’t apologize for other peoples’ sins, but I can tell about the grace that I’ve received. 

I can’t erase history, but I can tell about the God I know and who loves me, and who loves them.

I can’t change the past.

All I can do is tell the story that gives me life, a story that has shaped who I am. A story of renewal and rebirth, a story of forgiveness and peace, a story of healing and of second chances.

All I can do is tell them about the love I’ve received from this community of believers called “the Church.”

All I can do is tell them about the care I seen from this faithful family of God who so generously give of their time, labour, and resources, so that God’s mission of nursing a hurting world can continue.

All I can do is tell them the story of Jesus, whose body called “Christians” is living out his message of life and salvation, in their own small, limited, yet powerful way.

All I can do is say “He put some mud on my eyes. I washed. And now I can see.”

Our future as a church will be shaped by simple testimonies rather than large programs. The church of the future will be sustained by our stories of God in our lives rather than by relying our institutional history and cultural memory. Our life together in the coming years will be forged by sharing with each other and the world what God is doing with and among us.

I’ve always believed that the church of the future will look more like an AA meeting than a Broadway musical. An assembly of the broken, who share common defeats, who wear their bruised and battered hearts with pride, yet who gather to remember the story that is re-shaping and renewing them, so that - together as the body of Christ, with the dust and spit of our lives - healing will emerge. 

The church of the future will have one simple message:

“He put some mud on my eyes. I washed. And now I can see.”

Simple. To the point.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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