Dorothy Richard, Diane Lukins, Kathy Markgraf, Ryan Beck, and Olivia Avery share their experience of being engaged in the mission of YPM
I was really struck by the word ‘disciple’ in today’s reading. I’m not usually one given to doing word studies but this time I did. I looked over all the Greek and every instance in Matthew’s gospel where he used it and it seems to me that if we were to use a modern day term we would talk about students. This is a common and easily understood word so why do even our most modern translations continue the use of the word disciple? Now, most of you know that I’m engaged in trying to gentle and train to saddle a mustang and nothing seems more like the ancient arguments about whose disciple you are than trainers arguing about which method they follow. Some are disciples of Clinton Anderson, others Buck Brannaman, some follow Parelli or Lyons. But there is something beyond which horse trainer we are students of, or disciples of, and that is the love of the horse and the desire to shape and form a willing, working partner out of a scared, feisty, thousand pound animal.
Now, I’ve heard some critics say that today’s Christians are more followers of Paul than of Jesus and I’ve heard more arguments about wanting to institutionalize and mandate the laws of Moses than the way of Christ and so it behooves us (see what I did there?) to consider what undergirds our worship, our study, our discipleship. If the formation of a willing, happy partner undergirds all horse training, what undergirds our discipleship? What are we to create students of? And this brings us to Christ and the way of Christ and what it means to follow that path. What are we to be students of?
Our job is to love radically. To refuse to give up on people. to love the unlovable. To forgive. To accept. To create spaces of belonging where people can experience grace directly.
We ought to be strange and different. We are not of this world. We are supposed to be odd and weird. If we are just like the rest of the world, why would anyone bother to come in? Someone once said that, to all those outside the church it’s like a football huddle, we know something important is going on in there, but all we can see is their backsides. If we speak the Word of truth we have been given, we will be speaking against the dominant world paradigm. We will be living from a different place, and this will be apparent.
The world will tell you that all is hopeless and you ought to live in fear, you ought to dehumanize your enemies, you ought to competing fiercely for every little thing. But this is not what God tells us. The world will tell you, you are not good enough as you are, that you must change, shape, form yourself into something better, achieve, compete, win. But this is not what God tells us.
We are the opposing voice to the dominant paradigm. We are the ones inviting people to see that God and all that is good is stronger and more enduring than any evil the world can come up with.
We are not called to force the gospel, an ideology, or correct theology on anyone, but to love them, to love them with an unworldly, crazy love, without any prerequisite. When we hear people say, “those people aren’t even human” or “those people are evil,” or “those people don’t count,” we are called to be that opposing voice, that loving voice which says, “they, and you, are a beloved child of God, and nothing can change that.”
We are not called to make students of all nations because we have the right answers or the best worship, the most correct way of doing and being Christian, we are called only because we have decided to follow Jesus. We are welcomed with all our doubts intact and invited into a relationship with mystery and awe, with wonder and amazement. Love that is real, loves before any assurance, it does not demand that one conform or surrender their minds. Some doubted, some hesitated, and that’s okay. We are not called to enforce a particular theology or correct idea, we are called to love and let this love be a radical, life changing witness to all God has done. As Anne Lamott reminds us, the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty, it is rigidity, it is to lay hold of an ideology with such firmness that you forsake God in pursuit of being right and correct.
Last week we asked how we can possibly sit still with all that God has done and is doing! I hope that when you come to church you leave bothered and inspired, troubled and motivated, full of courage and without fear. Jesus said, You will do greater things than I, and perhaps he said that because he was working with 12 disciples and he left them with a legacy that changed the world! With an incredible story to tell, with the Holy Spirit running through their veins! If only 12 can change the world, what do you suppose 24 might do, or 48, or 96? If we attend closely to where the Spirit is leading us, if we allow the Holy Spirit, that life-giving breath of God, to live and breathe in us…what can’t we do? So yes, leave here disturbed and shaken because we have so much to do and we are so very capable of doing it! Each moment can be that moment when we launch into a spirit-guided, spirit-driven, radical life of witness and love! And that ought to disturb you a little.
Years ago I met a pastor whose congregation had confronted him. They thought he was going too far, too out there, too radical and so they confronted him. “How far do you intend to take this?” they asked. He held up the bible and said, “No farther than this.” Placated they left, feeling assured that he would stay within the bounds of good order and decency. He laughed as he recalled this, picked up the bible on his desk, and said, “Haven’t they ever read this?”
So yes, maybe we ought to be a little disturbed by this call to go and make disciples, go and to make students of God, students of love, mercy and justice. Go and turn people’s lives upside down, giving them a new rule by which to order their lives, a rule of mercy, grace and love, a rule of restoration and not retribution. It offends our sense of justice, there is no eye for an eye, no balancing of the scales, all debts are wiped clean. It is scandalous grace! So go, and make people students of this! Students of forgiveness, students of mercy, students of service, students of love.
Is it any wonder that we resist the urgings of the Holy Spirit when it wants to turn our lives this upside down? Yet if we live this way, if we really live this way, all of our neighbors will know. There will be no inward focused huddle, backsides to the world, seeking only our own good! The whole world will know what we are doing, will see it! because we will be living lives of active mission.
These days it seems like one can hardly look at the daily news without one more horror story and it can be tempting to give in to the idea that evil and hatred are too powerful to oppose, but we must not. A friend of mine, the Reverend Dr. Steven Koski, wrote this week that, “we are in the midst of a daily onslaught of violence, tragedy, hate, discord, injustice and pain. What will be our reply? There is a temptation to allow fear, despair and division to lay claim to our hearts… Now, more than ever, we need to lean into love.” Now more than ever we need to study love, mercy and grace. Now more than ever we need to be devout students of the way of Jesus.
We are called to be students of love, to love radically. To refuse to give up on people. to love the unlovable. To forgive. To accept. To create spaces of belonging where people can experience grace directly.
Scripture tells us that we can have lots and lots of wonderful things, but if don’t have love, we have missed the mark, we have stumbled and lost our way. We are not called to go and make students of great philosophy, ideology, or even theology, we are not called to maintain big, beautiful church buildings. We are called to make students of Jesus’ way, the way of mercy, love, and grace, the way of healing and feeding, the way of inclusion, the way of love. We are called not to our own salvation and healing, but for the salvation and healing of the whole world.
So it is fitting and wonderful synchoncity that the great commission was on the lectionary the day that we get to bless and send a mission to New Orleans.
Reader 1, It was a marvelous time. A time of wonders and confusion. We never knew what was coming. I mean, Jesus had died. Some of us were there and we saw it. But then he came to us. It was crazy! Can you imagine? We had seen him die and then he was here, alive again with us!
He ate with us. He talked and laughed with us. We didn’t know what to make of it. It seemed like the end of the world to some, to others it was a new beginning. For forty days he was with us, eating, talking, laughing, just like he always had done.
Reader 2-But then he was taken up, in this cloud. It blew us away, watching him rise. His last words to us were to wait, to stay in Jerusalem and wait. So we did.
Reader 3-We waited and we waited. We decided that Judas had to be replaced; that we needed to have twelve disciples, just like when he was here. We missed Jesus the moment he was gone and to be honest we just wanted things to be the same again. The way it had been, so we cast lots and chose Matthias to take Judas’ place. And we waited some more.
Sermon —have you ever wanted to catch hold of a moment in time, to keep it the way it was? To stop time in its tracks and not let a thing be changed? Or maybe the future seemed too frightening to go it alone. So you did what you could to preserve things just the way they were, you waited for rescue and you hoped that somehow those golden days would return, that things would be all right again.
When trauma happens, when crisis changes everything it’s OK to pull back from the world, to take a moment, to breathe deep and recenter yourself. This is a good thing. But it can be tempting to stay there, to not move on. Jesus’ last words were to wait, to take some time and just be, just be together.
Imagine the shift these people had been through, the trauma they had witnessed, the powerlessness they must have felt and the incredible surprise that somehow in the midst of that it was OK. It was OK because Jesus was still with them. For forty days he was with them and then he left promising to send an advocate, a helper in his place. If ever a group of people needed to take a moment to figure things out it was these people. How confusing it must have been to be waiting in Jerusalem for this breath of God, this holy wind to come and to, well to do what? They really didn’t know. They had been told to wait and so they did.Confused, astonished, inspired and still confused they waited. And while they waited they hung on to what little they could, those things that made them feel normal, made things make sense as much as possible. It’s what we do as people isn’t it? To try and maintain normality in the midst of transition. But this time of waiting can’t be all we are here for. This time of waiting comes to an end.
Reader 4-We were careful not to make waves. I mean things had settled down a bit after Jesus’ death but we didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves. What good would it do if we were all killed?
Reader 2-We met often in the upper room. Careful not to be seen as we gathered. We talked about what we had seen when he was here; we talked about what he had said. We talked and talked but mostly we just waited.
Reader 1,That’s where we were on Pentecost. The city was filled with visitors who had come to celebrate the giving of the law on Sinai. There was so much to do, so much going on in the city, it was a festival! I love festivals!!
Reader 3,So here we were in the house, listening to James talk. It was early in the day, the heat hadn’t yet penetrated the shadows.
Reader 4, Suddenly there was this sound like a rushing wind, like a hurricane. It was terrifying! People were screaming and ducking for cover.
It was like fire! I swear there was fire though nothing burned! Fire, lighting up each person, lighting us all up! We were filled with the Holy Spirit! It filled the whole building!
Reader 1, This had to be it! The thing we were waiting for!! There was no more waiting, it was time! We were overflowing with words, with love, with freedom, with joy, we couldn’t contain it!
Reader 3—I never felt so alive and we couldn’t sit still! We ran out into the streets and just started telling everyone about this wonderful thing!
Reader 2, and the words we were speaking! Who knew I could talk like this!
Reader 4—they all heard us! We were so full of joy, I wanted to sing and dance and oh man it was crazy! I couldn’t keep quiet I told everyone and then, and then I realized I wasn’t speaking my own language! But everyone I spoke to, they heard me as if my words were meant just for them!
Reader 1—I grabbed this one man and just gave him a hug! I told him God loved him and had accepted him as if he were God’s very own child! He stared at me and then laughed.
Reader 3 people were coming from everywhere, a huge crowd gathered and they were shocked and surprised because each one of them heard us speaking in their own native language. This wasn’t coming from us!!
Sermon — no it wasn’t coming from them. It was something new, something unexpected. God calls us into new places, into new situations that we cannot anticipate. We are called and sent. This was the birth of the church. It was “ecclesia” the calling out of the church out from the private sector into the world, out from individual salvation to expression of God’s love for the whole world. God had come to reconcile the world to God’s self, not a select few. God had come. It was not that we had to work our way up to God. God had come. How could these people sit still? How can we? The unanticipated grace and love of God is still so hard to grasp to accept. It not only calls us but sends us, sends us out into the world. Just as the disciples found themselves in the street contrary to the best advice of friends and strangers, so we are called to and sent.
Here in this moment of Pentecost, fearing death and persecution, these people were so overcome by grace that they lived, if even for a moment, from that place of knowing, of knowing that God has come and everything will be OK. They rushed into the streets and they shouted and they sang and they spread the news!
And they did it in a personal and individual way. Each person was met exactly where they were. Spoken to in such a way that they might hear and understand. How do we do that today? Do we not allow for diversity in the spoken word? Some need dialogue and need to enter into the conversation, others need to be taught with authority, still others “hear” best through music or art. Even today we speak many languages. We speak the language of youth and restlessness, we speak the language of age and new revelation, we speak the language of solidarity and tradition. We speak many languages! And in each language we seek to be faithful. In each manifestation we seek only to manifest God.
And how can we sit still how can we keep from singing and dancing and proclaiming when there is such deep need in the world? Church is born anew each time we find ourselves driven out by the Spirit to the other. We may rest,briefly, hiding behind our walls, seeking security and certainty, some reprieve from the crazy chaos of the world but church is expressed when we are so filled with joy, filled with grace and love that we cannot help but reach out to those in need. When we find ourselves so excited by the change and the transformation that is going on within us that we are driven by the Spirit to invite others along for the ride. “Come and see what God has done!” If there is any mission of the church it is not to get our theology correct, as if we might grasp and contain God within our concepts, it is not to fill our pews that this organization might continue, it is to spread the word of God that everyone might know, might experience and perceive God’s gracious gift. God did not call us to sustain ourselves, nor to attain some great intellectual insight, but to love one another, to be the light of Christ in the world, to all people.
Reader 4—the crowd around us began to be filled with laughter, some excited by what was happening, others in disbelief. Some wondered aloud if we were followers of the dead Jew Jesus and if we too would soon be dead being as bold as we were.
Reader—1 some began to say we were drunk. If only they knew! We were drunk on something, but not wine, no! We were filled with the Holy Spirit. We were consumed with God!
Reader 2—Peter, he came out and talked to them. He told them we weren’t drunk, that it was God working in us, that something awesome and amazing had happened.
Reader 3—some believed and they too accepted the Holy Spirit, a whole lot of them in fact. We just told them what God had done and it changed their lives too!
Sermon—We told them what had happened and it changed their lives. Changed their lives. Can you imagine? Can you believe? We have a Word that changes peoples’ lives. A Word that invites them to live from a different place. A transformative Word. We like to put that off on other people, some people, the mother Theresa’s amongst us, they might have a Word but me? Who am I to change people’s lives? Who am I to invite people into a new way a being. To invite them into that transformative moment when the divine impacts them, changes them forever.
Who are we not to? We are Church, called and sent. Filled with the Holy Spirit, consumed with God, freed to new life. Yes, sometimes we wait, we anticipate, we hold our breath and re-center ourselves. We take deep breathes and replenish ourselves, but then we breathe out too. As we have received so we give. It is in the giving that we become Christ’s body in the world. It is in the giving that we become Church.
What we are called to is counter-cultural. It is to step outside the norm, the expectations for how life is. It is to understand that we only have what we give away. It is in attempting to own or contain the truth, capital T truth, that we lose it. We become Church as we participate in the self-giving action of Christ. Yes we do withdraw into ourselves at times, we find our foundation in prayer and contemplation, in scripture and study, but we don’t stay there. We participate in the respiration of the Spirit, breathing in the nurturing, loving, life-giving, Spirit and breathing out the Word, the missional, evangelical, sending and calling Word. The Word that says “come to me, all who are weary,” The Word that says, “I would gather you as a mother hen gathers her chicks,” The Word that says, “I stand at the door and knock.”
Today is the birthday of the church. Not as those who have a unique and special experience, or the right understanding, not as those who withdraw from the world seeking only their own salvation, but as those who are sent as carriers of God’s love to embrace the world. Those who are sent as messengers of the good news, God has come. God has come and embraced us, even in our darkest and meanest moments, God has come that we might know God. And nothing will ever be the same again. God has come. And we are forever changed.
Please pray with me: Gracious God, reach into the hidden places in our souls, where fear and pain lurk, and love us until it heals. Amen
You have heard it said that this text is about Thomas and his doubts. That he is an example of what not to be, but I want to tell a story about God’s love for Thomas, a story about a love so powerful it can see into every crack and cranny where fear might hide. Every crevice where pain hides out, whispering those painful, anxious thoughts that cause us to withdraw on too many a fine day. I want to tell you a story about a god who is, in and of God’s very self, relational. A god who, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, is engaged in this wonderous dance, first one leading, then the other, as each celebrates the other. A god who reaches out to each and every one of us, swinging us up into God’s very arms, bringing us into this dance of love and joy. This is the god I want to speak of. Not the recriminating, you don’t have enough faith god, but the one who reaches for us even when we pull away. One who loves us in the depths of our misery and despair, in the midst of our anger and pain, in the midst of our fear and anxiety; a god who meets us where we are, but doesn’t leave us there. This is the God we meet in Jesus Christ. This is the God I want to speak of today.
I want to meet this god through Thomas and his story. I want to join Thomas in his grief and his loss, in his exclusion and his pain. I want to hear Thomas from across the centuries speak to us. I imagine it would go something like this:
First it was the women, saying they had seen Jesus, had spoken with him, but really, we all know that could never happen. I understand their grief, their desire to believe that what had happened could be undone, could be erased, but that’s not the way life works. I felt for them, in their pain and grief, but that was all.
Then it was everyone else! Saying that Jesus had come to them, not as spirit or a ghost but as a living breathing man. They assured me it was real. But, that’s not the way life worked. It hadn’t worked that way when my childhood friend died, or my grandparents, or, well death happens, there had been others. Once dead, one stayed dead. What they were saying was silly, and a bit disturbing.
We had to get on with things. We couldn’t just pretend that death could be reversed! Hadn’t I said, if we go to Jerusalem, they will kill him, and if our teacher, our rabbi and prophet, set his face to Jerusalem, was resolute, then we ought to go with him expecting to die also! Hadn’t I said that? This is the way of the world! This is just the way things are! You can’t change the way things are.
But, I couldn’t let it alone. The thoughts played through my mind over and over. If only I’d been more faithful, more courageous, maybe he would have come to me, I mean, if it could happen. But I hadn’t. I hadn’t gone to the cross with him. I’d been so scared.
Somehow, and I could think of so many ways it might have been, somehow I had failed him. The others were all lit up by his presence! Oh but I could see it. I knew that look on their faces. I knew that feeling, how he could reach into your heart and soul and make everything all right again, but this time, I had been denied, and I both knew why and didn’t know why. I just kept thinking over and over of what I might have done wrong, but mostly, I just tried really hard not to think about it. Because that’s not the way life works.“
We’ve all been there haven’t we? Last to be picked for sports teams in elementary school. The one left dateless on prom night. The one without an invitation to the party. The one who is left wondering why they aren’t good enough, not loved, not chosen, not appreciated, not valued. Not loved.
And don’t we all know what it is to face a hard reality? And the frustration of people telling us to “just think positive” or sharing one miracle cure after another that they heard of on the internet?
Can we take hope from Thomas’ story? For who among us has not wondered, can I be loved? Who among us has not secretly thought, well if they really knew me, they wouldn’t like me. And if you haven’t, and bless you if you haven’t because it’s a wonderful and gracious thing to have such a wonderful sense of yourself, still we can empathize. We’ve seen this kind of pain all too often. It’s the pre-teen girl who posts a picture of herself online asking this anonymous community if she’s pretty enough to be loved. It’s the angry young man who bullies and threatens because the whole world feels unsafe and he’s sure no one could really want him, love him, as he is.
I want to share a story that touched my heart. It’s the story of an elementary school teacher who every Friday, would ask the kids in her class to write down who they want to sit with next week. Who they want to have on their teams in group projects and then for hours she would pour over these lists of who is most loved, most wanted, who is chosen, who is not. A friend asked her about this and this is what she said,
“I know it might be arrogant, but I feel like I’m preventing the next Columbine, the next school shooting. You see, I’m looking for the kids no one wants to sit with, the ones no one notices or befriends, the outsiders, the excluded, the unwanted. I just think, if I could help them find friends now, when they’re still little, if I could help them to see themselves as beloved and wanted and chosen. I don’t know if it makes any difference really, but after Columbine, I had to do something.”
There is such power in being seen, in being invited in, in being included, in being named and claimed as one of us.
This is evangelism, this is the bringing of a good word, of a life-transformative experience of love, and the really cool thing is, we get to do it. The cool thing and the scary thing, is that God has entrusted us with the love and care of God’s very beloved children-each other.
That moment when your name is called, and you know, you know that finally it’s really you. Not those times when you are first chosen or even chosen in the middle of choosing, but that one time when all the choosing was done and you were sure that you were forgotten. When all the invitations have been sent out, but none for you. When all the names have been called but not yours. When it seems like no one sees you anymore they are so busy celebrating their loves, their invitations, their moment of glory…and then, as if from nowhere, someone calls your name!
That moment. But Jesus wasn’t done yet. He wasn’t done reaching into the pit of despair and loss and grief that had been welling up in Thomas’ heart. Thomas the one who had been prepared to “go with Jesus to Jerusalem and die there with him.” Thomas who had never expected any moment of reprieve from the loss he had experienced. Thomas who was willing to bravely soldier on through all the pain and grief, but please, please, don’t expect me to believe in miracles. It’s just too hard, too unfathomable, too outrageous. That Thomas. But no, just no. Thomas was a realist. He faced life on life’s terms and he knew that once dead is always dead. So no. No to the outrageous hope which defied all reality, all experience. Jesus was never going to call his name again. Never embrace him again. Never laugh with him again. Never share a meal with him again. And Thomas bravely moved through this finality. He didn’t deny it, but what rational man would?
So yes, that moment. When all hope is lost and the crazy ramblings of a few people wasn’t going to change that.
It is that moment that Jesus steps into and calls Thomas’ name. It is that moment, when it feels right and natural to harden one’s heart, to just move on, to get on with life, because nothing can be done. It is into that hardness and determination to survive that Jesus invites Thomas into a softer, more vulnerable, intimate embrace than he had ever thought possible. Into the pain, the grief, the loss, the hardness, Jesus brings gentleness, intimacy, vulnerability. “Go on, touch my wounds. Come close and feel my breath, breathe in my scent, hear my voice, come close. Do not be unbelieving, but abide in me.” Do not let your fear harden your heart and make your life small and desparate, but become soft, take the risk and come close to me again.
Jesus comes bearing his wounds and his flesh for Thomas to touch and feel, but it is Thomas’ wounds which are healed. It is Thomas’ despair, grief, and loss which receive that breath of new life.
Thomas’ head must have whirled with confusion, with desire and fear all at once. To touch the beloved teacher, to feel the warmth of his skin and see the gentle laughter in his eyes? Was not Thomas’ heart burning within his chest? Was he not rocked almost to his knees? To be so loved, that even death could not touch nor diminish that love, that even a brutal, tortured death, could not prevent that love from stirring his heart back to life one more time!
Had not some part of Thomas, some hope, some faith, died on that cross with Jesus?
And was it not the certainty of that loss rather than doubt which closed Thomas heart? But the moment he hears his name, doubt is stirred, doubt questions, and hope bubbles up in his chest! And Thomas, who had so bravely declared that he would die with Jesus, is just brave enough to let that hope fully enter his heart, overwhelm his certainties, and open his fearful heart to wonder, mystery, and a love that is well beyond his or our understanding.
It’s in those places where we’ve hardened our hearts and we’ve given up hope, where we’ve accepted that this is just the way life is and it won’t get any better, it’s into those locked down, locked up places that Jesus speaks our name, calling us into a new future, a new potential, asking us to be vulnerable enough to hope again, to love again, to believe again. It’s in those raw and painful wounds that Jesus breathes new life. It’s into that joyless resignation that Jesus takes our hand and invites us to join the dance and in so doing to abide in him as he abides in the Father. We are swept up, carried away, like a child who is caught up in a loving parent’s arms.
Doubt is the open door through which Jesus enters. Doubt is the glorious openness to the unknown. It is the refusal to accept the common answers. It is both the refusal to deny death, grief, and loss and the willingness to transcend them.
It is my hope that when you are asked to doubt all that you have ever known, about how life is, about death and taxes, about broken hearts and not-good-enough, when you are invited to doubt that things really have to be this way, you too will doubt, will wonder, will question. That you too will be swept up in those loving arms giddy for a moment, laughing, surprised and delighted, and that you will allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to be carried away, overcome by emotion, that you too will join Thomas in proclaiming, my lord, and my God!
When you are lost, I mean really, truly lost, and you just can’t find your way. It might have been something you did, a mistake you made, words spoken in haste or anger, it might even have been something that was done to you, something that makes people cringe when you talk about it, they just sort of pull away, and you’re lost.
All sense of connection, of community, of belonging just slips away and you. Are. Lost. End of story, cut to credits. Redemption, connection, belonging, all of this and everything else you’ve ever wanted must be meant for other people, not you, and that my friend is as lost as lost gets. Love is only meant for some, Tracy Chapman sang that back in 2000 but the feeling is timeless.
Honestly, I don’t really want to talk about this. I’d rather tell you cute stories about how my son got lost in the woods behind his grandma’s house looking for a treehouse he vaguely remembered his dad building three years earlier. It’s a cute story and he was an adorably cute child. But there’s really nothing cute about being lost, about losing your way, about being totally disconnected from everyone around you and wondering if you will ever find a place of belonging.
There are so many ways to be lost. Being lost physically, having to wander through the woods or drive down strange streets isn’t nearly as frightening as being lost from your people, your purpose, your connection with all that is holy. This is the kind of lostness this unnamed man in our text experiences. It is to be so lost to all meaning, worth and value that people pass you by and wonder aloud, as if you couldn’t hear them, how stained and sinful your soul must be that God would curse you like this, or maybe it was a curse on your parents and you just the victim of it.
This is lostness. This is to be stained so bitterly that only those who are similarly marked would ever seek out your company. This is to be the dissheveled one standing on the corner with a cardboard sign, the one that people studiously avoid eye contact with and certainly try to stay upwind of, because they’re sure you smell too. How bad do you have to be for God to take your eyes? They wonder. And you know you are lost to hope, lost to relationship, lost to the simplest of joys, of being loved, of being included, of belonging.
Now the disciples, and those who pass by generally, really want to blame this man or his parents for his condition. They want to be able to say if only he, or they, had done this differently, then everything would be all right, but Jesus won’t allow that. Jesus stops this line of reasoning cold. Nope, nope, nope, neither his parents nor he himself sinned. God is not punishing him. And to take a brief detour from our reflection on being lost, let’s take a look at our need to have someone to blame. If they were smart like me…they wouldn’t have been and here we can get a litany of crimes. And we tend to like this reasoning because it means we are in control! We can prevent bad things from happening to us and our loved ones, whether it’s because we know better than to flash cash in a bad part of town, or to be armed and well protected, or to eat all the cleanest healthiest food, somehow we are going to be in control and not allow any bad thing to touch us or our loved ones, and so there! Whew, we’re safe! Yes, we might not be wearing deoderant, because you know cancer, but we are safe! In fact, we love this line of reasoning and the way it puts us in control of things so much that often victims of violent crimes will accept that they must have DONE something to deserve it and if they can just figure out what that something was, they can make sure it will never happen again.
And Jesus stops this line of reasoning cold. No. just no. Neither he, nor his parents sinned. Sorry. You don’t get to feel safe today, bad things do happen to good people. And if you really let yourself feel that, it ought to send a shiver right down your spine.
So yes, this man is lost from all sense of belonging, from being accepted as having worth and value, from being seen as a fully human person, from having a future that is as bright and shiny and full of possibility as any other. He is truly lost.
I imagine his mother might have spoken to her best friend, back in the day, when she was young and bearing children, and she might have said something like this; “He seemed so beautiful and healthy when he was born. My husband went right down to the temple and made an offering in thanksgiving. He was so excited to have a boy, a healthy baby boy, but over the next few days and weeks, we began to notice. He wasn’t quite right. His expression was vacant and lost. He couldn’t see. We just had to try again, that’s all. We weren’t going to give up, no! This boy was such a disappointment, good for nothing, but we could have others! And we did! We had beautiful, healthy children after him, but what to do with him?”
And in that moment even his parents lost sight of him as an incredible, beautiful child of God. The interesting thing about child psychology, is that it insists we can only see ourselves as we are reflected by others. It is when other people say, “I see you, I know you, I love you,” that we can learn to love ourselves.
In other words, if you all see me as great and wonderful, as loving and kind, I can learn to match that so that I won’t have to deal with all the cognitive dissonance that would follow if I wasn’t all that but you still saw me that way. Isn’t that something? We have the ability to see the best in one another and to call it out!
Over and over again Jesus is doing this, “I see you, I know you, I love you.”
Jesus saw him—this is my favorite line in this story. How often do we drive by those strange people standing on the meridian and refuse, absolutely refuse to see them. “Just don’t make eye contact, they’ll come closer if you make eye contact, they’ll want something” so we deliberately, intentionally refuse to see them. We want things to be okay, we’ll drop a few coins, but I don’t want to open my heart to you, to let your pain touch my heart. Jesus saw, looked at, made eye contact with, a blind man.
We find that Jesus continues to come to us. The true miracle of this story to me is that Jesus continues to come to him, to find him, no matter how lost he is. How much he must have wanted to fit in, to be accepted finally. But when he did show up at the temple he wasn’t accepted. When they called his parents, how much he must have wanted to hear them finally be proud of him, but they insist he is an adult and is on his own.
It must have been shattering to discover that even when the physical reasons why you were lost, outside of society and the possibility of a rich, hopeful life, were restored, you were still lost. But not for long. In the midst of this man’s lostness, Jesus comes looking for him. And this is the moment where hope is restored, where life becomes rich and abundant, where one can learn to live this wild, reckless, abundant life, because you finally know who is holding your hand. Who’s got you, firmly and safely, in their grasp. If we knew, really knew, who holds our hand as we walk this path, take this journey, it would give us incredible courage.
May we know we are found, eternally and forever found, in every part of our being, so that we might live this wild and reckless abundant life. So that we might be bold and daring and share that reckless love with all whom we meet. The more that we abide in God, especially when all the world wants to tell us we are lost, the more we know we can never really be lost. We are forever found in God’s loving grace. May it be so.
A few quotes from the sermon:
Great masses of people these days live out their lives in a dull and loveless stupor. Sensitive persons find our inartistic manner of existence oppressive and painful, and they withdraw from sight… I believe what we lack is joy. The ardor that a heightened awareness imparts to life, the conception of life as a happy thing, as a festival… But the high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.
A stretch of sky, a garden wall overhung by green branches, a strong horse, a handsome dog, a group of children, a beautiful face — why should we be willing to be robbed of all this? Whoever has acquired the knack can in the space of a block see precious things without losing a minute’s time… All things have their vivid aspects, even the uninteresting or ugly; one must only want to see.
Numbers 20 tells us that we need to be cautious of taking on too much responsibility especially when we are lost in grief, overwhelmed. Then especially we must be on the hunt for those moments of grace which call out to us, which help us find our center and our balance in God’s grace. This is the time when we must practice that essential discipline of seeking out and affirming all that is good, all that is true, all that is graced with beauty and shines with life. When we are in pain, or have shouldered too much responsibility, when the way has grown too long and we can’t see the end, this is the time and the place we must dig in and refuse to live in despair, to live in anger. This is when we must seek with all our hearts the grace and beauty of God. It may be the hardest place to seek it, but here more than ever we must seek and we must affirm that Love wins, Love is the first word, the most enduring and the final word. We do not seek a triumphal faith that promises us no harm will come to us, that all will always be bright and shiny and without flaw. No, we seek a faith that will live in us when all seems lost, when our hearts are broken. We seek a faith that will work in us and change us, that we might live beautiful, faithful, true lives no matter which valley we walk through.
It takes no special talent to look around our world and point out things that are numbing, depressing, or death-dealing. But becoming keenly and consistently aware of what’s good., true, and beautiful demands a discipline: we must open our eyes, minds, and hearts, and keep them open.
As we open up, we begin to see beauty everywhere, not only in nature but in human nature. There’s a lot of bad news out there, but there’s a lot of good news as well. Today we celebrate the unique and beautiful call of faith, that of paying attention to all of God’s love and grace, of being mindful and aware of the deep beauty and love in our lives, especially when we wander too long in the desert, when our eyes are downcast, when we lose those we love, when we just really, really want to hit that rock twice. To pause and notice, no matter how painful things are at the moment, how beautiful, how lovely, how enduring and persistent is the love of God.
Mindful” by Mary Oliver
I see or hear
that more or less kills me
that leaves me
like a needle In the haystack
It is what I was born for—
to look, to listen, to lose myself
inside this soft world—
to instruct myself
over and over in joy,
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant—
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help but grow wise
with such teachings
the untrimmable light of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?
We begin in the middle of the conversation. Paul had visited Corinth, planted a church among this mixed group of gentiles, those who were formerly used to being firmly established in the middle of society and who were now beginning to understand what it means to stand alongside the outsider, and as one might expect problems arose. Scholars suggest that Paul wrote as many as four or five letters to the Corinthians, we have only two. So we join the conversation in the middle, Johnny come lately trying to make sense of what is going on within this conversation, within this community. Some of it makes us raise our eyebrows a little, man have they lost their way! Sexual immorality, eating food sacrificed to idols, power games, name dropping, etc.
They had begun with promise and wound up wandering in the wilderness. How to live this odd, promising, but strange life that held so much promise, but was, well different. It wasn’t how they were raised, it wasn’t how they had played the political games of society, it was, just very different. They were wandering in a wilderness of conflict, abuse, searching for a promise that had seemed so very evident when they first set out, when they left the safety of belonging and middle class life.
Last week we spoke about the trauma, loss and crisis that often precedes someone entering into a wilderness journey, but for some it is a promise, a promise that if you walk this path something really, truly wonderful will happen. It’s that moment, when you are out on a hike and you can see the top of ridge you are climbing and you finally surmount that ridge only to see that the trail curves and moves further uphill. It’s exhausting to realize that more is demanded, that you have not reached the top but only a way station and the pause that is a momentary enjoyment of rising all the way on top is delayed. Not. There. Yet. Uff.
The Corinthians began their journey with hope and dreams of wonderful things and found themselves embroiled in common conflict and disputes. If you spend much time talking to unchurched people at some point you will hear someone say, “Oh those churches, they say they are good, kind, loving Christians, but they are filled with conflict and power games and lot’s of shoulds, “it should be this way,” “you should dress like me” “you should, you should, you should” it’s no different than anything else.” There is a Buddhist saying that, ‘before enlightenment one chops wood and carries water, after enlightenment, one chops wood and carries water.” It reminds us that our daily tasks and the events of our lives do not change much. We still have the same labors, the same weather, the same bills and live with the same people, whether we are Christian or not. We will still wander the badlands of life at some point, times of conflict, loss, trauma, these will come the rain falling on the good and the bad alike.
So we meet Paul in what scholars believe is his fourth letter to this conflicted congregation. He speaks to reassure them and to help them stay the course, to keep on track, to remember to make the most important things first and foremost, not letting them drown in the sea of so many small things that tend to fill our lives. In today’s passage Paul points them to the beauty that lives within us, that passes by unseen and unnoticed every single day.
“Remember who you are, he says, remember what great beauty lies within you, for you were made to shine, you were created in the image of the most high God. You are wondrous. Remember who you are.”
He says this even though the conflict is only in an ebb and soon flows again. It’s one of those things you can’t say to someone in the heat of the moment, but something that we need to hear again and again during those quiet times. “Remember who loves you. Remember how wonderful you and those around you are.” He reminds us how important it is to really see one another, to remember why we are engaged in relationship in the first place, that we are all part of the body of Christ. He reminds us how important it is to see beyond what is happening in the moment or outward appearances and look beneath, to look for the image of Christ, the light of God, shining in each person we meet.
There are two stories that came to mind as I studied this scripture, and I’d like to share them. One comes from the book, “The Half Has Never Been Told” and it’s the story of Liza Jane. Liza Jane was a young girl who was sold away from her family, sold down the river, and arrived at the plantation beaten, brutalized, and dissociating. She was almost zombie-like, moving through the day more dead than alive she did the bare minimum to avoid the attention of the overseer. The story that was passed down, that comes to us now, is how the men and women in the field, working alongside Liza Jane would sing to her, ‘Come on home, Liza Jane, come on home” and as the days passed it woke something in her, and she began to sing back to them, “I’m coming home, I’m coming home.” They sang her back to life when she was lost in despair. They refused to give up on her and just kept singing.
The other story is the story of Dr. Ted Stoddard. His fifth grade teacher relates how he came to be in her class. She had noticed him the year before on the playground and he wasn’t the kind of student she looked forward to teaching. He was disheveled and needed a bath, he was quiet and withdrawn and when he did engage in class activities his behavior was odd and put the other students off. He would blurt out inappropriate things and his actions were simply discordant, unsettling. When she sat down to review the students class histories she read his last. She didn’t want to be prejudiced, but he just rubbed her wrong.
As she read his former teacher’s notes she was surprised and shocked. The first grade teacher said he was a delight and charming. The second grade teacher described him as bright and sociable, a quick learner. The third grade teacher said his year had begun well enough, but his mother’s illness was clearly taking a toll on him. His fourth grade teacher said he was withdrawn and tended to isolate, he seemed distracted and had difficulty learning, the teacher speculated that the death of the young boy’s mother was the cause of this change.
She put the papers down and prayed for the young boy, and herself. She told herself she would give him extra attention and a little more care. Still, she felt ashamed of her quick judgment.
When Christmas came and the students brought little gifts this boy brought a half used bottle of perfume, clumsily wrapped, sort of disheveled not unlike the boy. She thanked him and made a big deal of putting some perfume on. When the day ended she wished her students a good Christmas break and said goodbye to them, only to notice this young boy lingering. “You smell like my mom,” he said, and then he left.
She began to see him with new eyes, eyes that looked for the treasure hidden beneath the depths of his grief, his loss, his pain. We are called to the very same mission, to see each other through the eyes of Christ, to look with love and to believe the very best in each other especially when it’s hard.
Paul spoke to a church that was in the middle of it’s own wilderness journey, one that was trying really hard to figure out how to live this new life in Christ and who sometimes just wanted a charismatic leader to tell them what to do. To these people, Paul said, “remember who you are, remember that we have this treasure in clay jars, not in fancy, gilded jars, or shining crystal, but in common clay, chipped and broken, yet within each one is a treasure.” He asked us to look beneath the surface and search out the image of Christ, the light of God, in each person, not to sit in judgment, not even positive judgment, but to put our hope, our trust in the image of God shining from each person.
Things may be hard, they may be difficult, we may wander in the desert, not sure if we are heading in the right direction, or even the same direction, but we remember who we are and whose we are. We have this invitation to pause in our travels and notice the beauty, the grace, the love, the kindness, all around us, and to find, even in, especially in, our most difficult circumstances cause for gratitude.
“So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”
We have this ministry, to see in each other the treasure buried beneath the clay, beneath all that life heaps upon us. To sing each other back to life when we are lost and in pain. To see with the eyes of Christ that we might love like Christ. May it be so.