Sunday, March 26, 2017

“Let's Get Dirty” (John 9:1-41)

Jesus spit on the ground.  Then he reached down to the spot where he had spit, picked up the wet soil, and manipulated it until it had become mud.  Then he reached out with the muddy paste and smeared it on the eyes of the man who stood before him . . . a blind man . . . blind since his birth.  And, then, he told him to go and wash it off.

Jesus got his hands dirty . . . it was the beginning of a miracle.

Our scripture reading this morning is filled with all sorts of things . . . all sorts of things that a person could go off on.  There is the issue of sin . . . who was at fault for the blindness of this individual, after all, someone had to have sinned for him to be born blind.  There is the issue of the miracle . . . a person was healed of blindness, but was it a legitimate miracle?  Was it up to snuff or was it some sort of elaborate hoax to woo the people to follow Jesus?  There is the issue of belief . . . does a miracle open the door for one to believe, or is it sleight of hand trick meant to impress the impressionable?  Then there is the issue of who is really blind . . . the one who cannot see, or the one who can see but chooses not to act.

There is so much to choose from, where does one begin?

To be honest with you, this is a scripture reading that has resonated with me most of my life . . . has been one that I can identify with.  The reason for that is because I grew up in a family with siblings who had disabilities, and I have two sons with disabilities.  The world of disabilities is a world that very few of us have ever had to deal with, and a world I do not wish upon anyone.  Thus it is that as I read this passage for the umpteenth time, I can identify and feel the frustration of those who were on the side of the blind man.

So, yes, there was the prevalent belief at the time of this story, that people with disabilities were disabled because either they had sinned or someone in their family had sinned.  Thus there was always this underlying current of disgust in the community of those families in which there were family members with disabilities . . . the finger had to be pointed somewhere.  The truth was that there was no “sin” associated with the disability.  The disability was what it was.  People are born with disabilities and it is not because they or their parents or family members committed some horrendous sin.  It just happened.  It is what it is.

Besides . . . what does it matter?  The bottom line is that there is a person who has a disability who needs a little more help than others in order to become a part of the community.  Attempting to find blame does nothing to help the individual.

From the very beginning of our story, Jesus reiterates, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”  People who have members of their family with disabilities have spent a lifetime fighting the “blame game” . . . and, in all honesty, it does not matter.  That is not the issue.  Jesus understood that there was a bigger fish to catch than who was at fault.  It does not matter . . . what matters is the response.

Unfortunately, I cannot attest to witnessing a miracle of the magnitude of what we heard in our reading this morning.  In all the years that I have dealt with the disabilities touching the lives of my siblings and my two sons, I have never witnessed a miracle as described in our reading.  I have not seen the blind suddenly able to see.  Yet, at the same time, I have witnessed countless little miracles . . . little breakthroughs that brought hope and promise into the lives of those I love . . . little moments of hope and promise.  Moments when the darkness that surrounded the disability was shattered exposing the possibilities of what could be.  The potential.  I have never seen a major miracle, but I have seen a whole lot of little miracles.

But, as Jesus said, for those who see there is no problem . . . but, for those who are blind, the problems arise.

Thus there is the constant need to defend . . . to defend that which seems miraculous.  In our story we read over and over again how the parents and even the healed man, had to defend themselves and to defend the miracle that had taken place.  Over and over again they had to prove to those gathered that they were who they said they were, and that what had taken place had really taken place.  Any parent of a child with a disability can attest to the constant battle of having to prove . . . first that there is a disability, and second that the disability is worthy of receiving help.  It is a constant struggle and fight, whether it is right or not.  It is the “put up or shut up” argument.

Is this not what we see when the miracle occurs?

Over and over again, the parents are grilled.  Over and over again, the man who is healed is grilled.  Their word is not good enough.  The facts are not good enough.  The frustration is beyond imagination . . . and, yet, for families with members who have disabilities, this is a daily part of their lives.

Yet, we forget.  We forget that miracles are not about the a person receiving sight; but, it is about the revealing of God.  In a miracle, God is revealed.  There is no doubt in this story that God is revealed.  In the miracle it was not that the man could see, but that he could see God.  In seeing, the man believed.  His words to Jesus were, “Lord, I believe.”

“Lord, I believe.”

Right there, in those three words, is the gist of the story . . . the whole point of the story.  It is not a theological debate about sin.  It is not a discourse on miracles.  It is about the power of a person who has stepped into the presence of God and believed.  And, that belief comes not from these debates, but from the fact that someone paused for a moment and took action . . . “he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes.”  That is the crux of what we are called to hear this morning.  Someone was willing to get dirty.

Jesus was willing to get his hands dirty to help another.  In his actions, Jesus set the example for all of us.  He did not question from where the man’s disability came from . . . he reached out to help.  For Jesus it was not a matter of debate or conjecture, it was a matter of helping another in their need.  Thus it is that it was not the restoration of sight that was the true miracle, but the willingness to reach out and help another.  In the act, God was revealed.

So, what is the “good news” of our reading this morning?

The “good news” is in the willingness to get one’s hands dirty to help another.  Unfortunately we live in a time in which this is easier said than done.  Ask anyone who has been in the need of help.  They will tell you that there are almost insurmountable hoops that must be jumped through before assistance is offered . . . a ton of proof that must be submitted before help will be given.  In the meantime, the problems do not go away.

During the season of Lent, we are asked to not only examine our lives to
see what barriers are keeping us from getting closer to God, but we are also asked to examine our lives to see where the barriers are that keep us from helping others.  We are asked to consider getting our hands dirty . . . of reaching out and helping others in their need.  We are called to make a difference.

Jesus spit on the ground.  Then he reached down to the spot where he had spit, picked up the wet soil, and manipulated it until it had become mud.  Then he reached out with the muddy paste and smeared it on the eyes of the man who stood before him . . . a blind man . . . blind since his birth.  And, then, he told him to go and wash it off.

It made a difference.

During the season of Lent, we are asked whether or not we will make a difference . . . are we willing to get our hands dirty.  Amen.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

“Ungrateful Faith” (Exodus 17:1-7)

The setting for our scripture reading this morning is the wilderness of Rephidim.  The Israelites, newly freed from slavery, have been traveling from place to place as commanded by God.  They have seen pillars of cloud and fire.  They have seen manna rain down from the heavens, and quail appear to ease their hunger.  

But now they are camped out in the wilderness, water has run out, and dehydration is imminent.  The mood changes.  As thirst devolves into panic and panic into fury, the Israelites confront their leader--and by extension, their God.  They are not happy campers.  They demand to know from Moses why he brought them up out of Egypt to die of thirst.  They want water to drink!

They really lay into Moses . . . and, in a sense, God.  They moan and groan, cry and whine . . . complain, complain, complain.  In Moses’ mind he cannot understand the ungratefulness of the people towards the God who freed them from bondage, set them free, and is leading them to their own land.  He demands to know, “Why do you quarrel with me?  Why do you put the Lord to the test?”  Moses wants to know, because, after all, he is just God’s front.

In frustration, Moses cries out to God: “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

With perfect twenty/twenty hindsight, those who have read the Exodus passages, have often gotten quite irritated with the Israelites . . . always whining, always complaining.  Because we know the story and its ending, we wonder how these people can be so ungrateful in their faith of the God who rescues them . . . leads them to freedom.

But, despite our perfect twenty/twenty hindsight, we need to give the people a break.  We need to give them a break, because we are not that much different than they are.  We have had our gripes and complaints about God.  We have done our fair share of whining.  We have all demanded action and signs from God in our darkest hours.  We have lamented with the best of them . . . we have all had our moments of ungrateful faith.

Did you know that God has been sued in court at least twice?

One individual in 2005, in Romania, serving in prison for committing murder sued God--indirectly through the Romanian Orthodox Church, for having kept him away from evil and allowing the devil to encourage him to kill.  He stated that God broke the binding contract of his baptism.

The other case happened a little closer to Montana . . . in Nebraska.  State Senator Ernie Chambers sued God accusing the Almighty of basically bringing mayhem through “fearsome floods, horrendous hurricanes, terrifying tornadoes” and the like.

Both lawsuits were thrown out of court.  The reason?  Since God doesn’t have a legal address, the presiding judges argues, God can’t be summoned to appear in court.

Apparently God did not get God’s day in court.

So, if a person can’t take God to court to settle a grievance, what is a person to do but moan, groan, complain, and whine.

Consider the Israelites.  Remember that these are a people who have been freed of their bondage . . . generations of bondage.  They had known life only one way and that was the way that their captors told them.  There was no freedom involved in their captivity.  Suddenly they are freed . . . liberty is theirs . . . they are no longer under the rule of an oppressor.  Freedom can be scary . . . even terrifying.  Now they were on their own, being led by a God they could not see beyond a pillar of a smoky cloud and fire.  Wandering in the desert in what seems like a mindless pattern.  Things are not going so smoothly and old Egypt--even with its oppression--is beginning to look good.

The thirst tips the scale.

More often than not, there is a deeper cause for complaint.  The Israelites need more than just water to sooth their physical thirst.  They need the presence of God to sooth their spiritual thirst.  They need to know God’s presence.  They need to know God’s presence in their everyday lives . . . in the good and in the bad.

And, that is what God gives them.  In an elaborate display of presence, Moses brings together the elders of Israel, takes them to a particular place, strikes it with the staff, and water comes flowing out.  The miracle occurs . . . a revealing of God . . . a revelation.  All miracles point to the presence of God.  

In the end, Moses understood.  Our scripture reading tells us that Moses named the watering rock “Meribah” and “Massah”.  When the ancient Hebrews names a place, they were marking it as significant in their sacred geography.  This was not about water, this was about the spiritual struggle “. . . because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’”   

This was the root of their complaint.  They needed to know.  Their ungratefulness of faith was rooted in a fear of being separated from the God who provides.

So, do you have a complaint against God?

In not wanting to sound ungrateful, but wanting to express truth, I think that most of us have had our share of lamenting when it comes to God . . . especially in those times when life kicks us in the teeth.  We all complain, even to God.  But deep down, I do not think it is so much the complaint that is being stated that matters, but the underlying need to know that God is presence . . . constantly present in our lives.  In the good, in the bad, and in everything that happens in between.  We just want that reassurance.

We thirst for that reassurance.

During the season of Lent, we are called to step into the spiritual wilderness to assess our relationship with God.  It can be a difficult journey as we wander through the wilderness confronting those barriers that block us from fully embracing God into our lives.  It can be a time of great frustration . . . great disappointment.  A time of great thirst.  And, in our questioning . . . our lamenting . . . a time in which we wonder, is God among us or not?  It is a time in which we need reassurance.

It is a journey we are to make if we are going to realize the radical freedom of being a child of God, of knowing that the God of both the wilderness and water has compassion enough for our questions.  God can handle it.  Surprisingly, over and over again, God keeps on showing up freely to stand before us.  God is always waiting.  Amen.  

Sunday, March 5, 2017

“Temptation Stories” (Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11)

It arrived in the mail on Friday . . . the AARP Bulletin.  It arrived with the usual postal flyers, junk mail, and bills.  Typically it does not grab my attention and usually ends up in the house “library”; but, this time, it caught my attention.  The bold headline on the front of the newspaper proclaimed: Live Longer! 50 Proven Ways to Add Years to Your Life.  Getting on up there in years now, that headline caught my attention, as I would be interested in knowing how I can add years to my life expectancy.  So, of course, as I sat down to eat my supper . . . I perused the fifty suggestions that would increase my longevity.

The fifty suggestions were interesting.  For example, did you know that by having a female doctor you have a better chance of surviving a hospitalization and not being re-admitted in thirty days?  I have a hard enough time dropping my pants for my male doctor, so I am not so sure the benefits of having a female doctor is worth the extra couple of days of life she would bring.  The AARP Bulletin threw out there forty-nine more suggested ways to add years to my life . . .

. . . and, half-way to shoving in that third helping of macaroni and cheese into my mouth, I suddenly had an epiphany!  My epiphany was that I was interested in the suggestions . . . interested in extending my life . . . for all the wrong reasons.  The baseline reason for me wanting to extend the years of my life had to do with me just wanting to live longer and put off the possibility of death for as long as I can.  I’m just like anyone else, I want to live for as long as I can.  Yet, what good is living life if it is not a life filled with quality experiences . . . if it is not lived to its fullest.  Not once, while I was reading that article, was I even considering what those extra years of life could mean for the quality of my life.  No, I was just interested in living a little while longer . . . and, I was willing to take the easy way out.  Who knows, if doing half of the suggestions would add five to ten years to my life, I would make the sacrifice . . . but, I would draw the line at having a female doctor!

M. Scott Peck, author of the book The Road Less Traveled, implied in that book that sin was basically taking the easy way out.  This morning in our scripture readings we heard two temptation stories . . . the story of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit, and Jesus’ experience in the wilderness fasting and praying for forty days.  In both stories we see that the main characters are enticed . . . are tempted . . . to take the easy way out.

For Adam and Eve it is in the form of a piece of fruit . . . a piece of fruit that God has forbidden them to eat.  It is a piece of fruit from the tree of knowledge.  To eat the fruit was to gain wisdom . . . to know the difference between good and evil . . . to be like God; or at least that is what the serpent told Eve.  But, whatever the case, Adam and Eve had been forbidden to eat any of the fruit from that tree.  Eve understood this, but the serpent was wily . . . playing upon common sense, the serpent argued that God would never kill her or Adam for eating the fruit . . . no, God would be happy that they were suddenly wise like God was.  Plus, in the eyes of Eve, that fruit looked pretty tasty.  So, she bit into the fruit.

Well, we know what happened from there.

God was not pleased that Adam and Eve had eaten the fruit . . . was not pleased that they were suddenly conscious of the world around them . . . of what was good and evil.  With every action there is a reaction . . . a consequence of choice.  In this case, everyone involved feels the consequence of their choice.  The serpent loses its legs and ends up spending the rest of its life slithering around on the ground.  Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden, and suddenly life is no longer a picnic . . . no, life becomes hard.  

And, why?

Because Adam and Eve could not wait . . . could not wait until God provided them with the wisdom that they would need . . . could not wait for God’s plan to unravel as it was meant to.  No, instead of waiting for God and doing what God would want them to do, they took the easy way out . . . they ate the fruit.  I am not sure that either one of them felt the choice was worth the consequence.

In the second story, we see Jesus begin his earthly ministry by going into the wilderness after his baptism.  He goes to the wilderness to fast and pray . . . to discern God’s will.  For forty day and nights, Jesus fasted and prayed.  Forty days without food and probably many fitful nights of sleep makes one susceptible.  At the end of his spiritual quest, Jesus is visited.  He is visited by the devil.  The devil sees an opportunity . . . an opportunity to catch Jesus at his weakest.  When people are hungry and sleepy, people have a tendency to make rash choices.  The devil was hoping to take advantage of this.

As we know, the devil tempts Jesus with three scenarios . . . wealth and prestige, immortality, and power.  In three attempts the devil tries to tempt Jesus away from his loyalty and love for God . . . to bring him over to the dark side . . . to make him take the easy way out.  The devil’s offers sound pretty good.  Who wouldn’t want the things that the devil offers . . . wealth and prestige, immortality, and power?  Especially considering how easy the devil makes it sound.  The devil tells Jesus to just say the word and it is all his.

I don’t know about you, but if I miss more than two meals during the day . . . well, I’m putty in anyone’s hands if he or she is offering me a cheese burger.  The devil is offering Jesus the easy way out . . .

. . . but, Jesus does not cave in.  Jesus does not fall for the temptations.  Jesus does not take the easy way out.  No, we know the story.  From this point on in Jesus’ life he takes the way of God . . . he takes the way of God no matter how difficult that way might be.  He refuses to take the easy way out.

Lent is a season of examination.  Traditionally Lent was a season in which those seeking to offer their lives to God were charged with examining their lives and doing the necessary things to accept the will of God into their lives.  It was a time of not only considering one’s weaknesses, but also one’s strengths . . . and, in the end, of giving one’s self over to God completely.  It was not taking the easy way out.  And, yet, it was a time of great temptation . . . a time of considering taking the easy way out.

Like the generations of those followers of Jesus before us, we step into this time of examination as we enter into the season of Lent.  And, right off the bat, we are asked to consider our lives in light of this idea of taking the easy way out.

Which brings me back to that headline in the AARP Bulletin.  Who among us wouldn’t like to figure out the easy way of adding more years to our lives . . . was not that the temptation of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilds’ short story . . . the portrait ages while Dorian Gray never does.  We are all tempted to take the easy way out in our lives . . . daily.  Daily we are bombarded with temptations to take the easy way out in our lives . . . to find and use the shortcuts and loopholes . . . to achieve the result without the work.  We are no different than any of the three characters in our scripture readings this morning--Adam, Eve, and Jesus.

And, we know how it ended for each of them.

We know that there are consequences to the choices we make in our lives . . . sometimes they turn out for the good . . . and, sometimes . . . well, sometimes they don’t turn out so well.  Ask Adam and Eve.  It didn’t turn out so well for them.  At the same time, considering the life of Jesus, one has to wonder how well it turned out for him.  I am not sure too many of us are really willing to truly follow in the footsteps of Jesus . . . after all, he got himself crucified.  

The bottom line was that it was their choice.  No one forced them to choose the way that they chose.  The serpent did not twist Eve’s arm, nor did Eve twist the arm of Adam . . . no, they knew that they weren’t suppose to eat the fruit; but, they did.  They did because it was the easiest way.  Sure they knew there would be consequences, but the gain outweighed the negative in their minds.  Adam and Eve paid the price for their choice, and it didn’t end up being the easy way out.

Neither did the devil twist the arm of Jesus.  The devil just laid it out there and told Jesus that all he had to do was to say the word.  He could have had it all.  And, who knows, Jesus might have considered it when one considers his weaken state; but, in the end, he could not do it.  He could not take the easy way out.  He told the devil to “not put the Lord your God to the test.”  And, in the end, Jesus chose to do God’s will.  He proclaimed, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”  Though the easy way would have been--at least in the minds of many--the best way, Jesus chose to follow God’s will . . . even if it led to a cross.

During the season of Lent, that is the challenge it throws at us . . . to consider our lives and our faith in the light of taking the easy way out.  It is probably the most difficult challenge because it can be the most subtle.  

Despite the fifty tips that the AARP Bulletin gives to adding years to my life, I know that the real means of adding years to my life are a lot more difficult.  Even though they mean well, there is no easy way to add years to one’s life . . . to live long takes a good bit of luck and a willingness to live right.  There are no simple means to achieving a long life except for taking care of one’s self.  Taking care of one’s self means that you have to eat right, exercise, and so much more.  

If I am going to be honest with myself and others . . . I am probably losing the battle for longevity.  I do not eat as well as I should . . . my excuse is that life is short and one should enjoy it while he or she has it; plus something is going to kill you in the end, so you might as well enjoy it and eat what you want.

Exercise!!  Well, for the past decade that word has become a four-letter word for me.  Exercise, as I remember it, is associated with pain.  I don’t care too much for pain; thus, I do not exercise as much as I should.

Besides, the wonders of modern medicine ensure me that I do not need to worry about either.  All I have to do is to pop a pill and longevity is just down the road.  Better living through chemistry.

Therein lies the dilemma . . . therein lies the choice . . . and, it is mine to make.  Do I take the easy way out or do I follow the path that God has chosen for me?

All of us are faced with such choices on a daily basis.  We are confronted with choices of taking the easy way out or doing God’s will.  Think about it.  How many times during the day are you confronted with a choice . . . on the one hand, there is God’s will; on the other hand, there is taking the easy way out.  One will be easy, the other will probably be a little more difficult.  Both are legitimate choices that are acceptable in our society.  In our day and age, taking the easy way out is acceptable and often the preferred route.  But, the choice is ours.

I think this is the biggest challenge of the season of Lent . . . facing temptation.  Because it is the most difficult challenge we should not be surprised that the season kicks off with this starting point . . . that it asks us to consider those temptations in our lives and how they keep us from truly fulfilling God’s will in our lives.

Temptations are not easy.  It is easy to be lured into taking the easy way out in this day and age when we are so busy.  And, yet, as M. Scott Peck stated, taking the easy way out is the root of sin.  Thus we need to rise up to accept this challenge of examining our lives and what it is that tempts us to take the easy way out instead of following God’s will.  During this season of Lent, may we find the strength to enter into the wilderness and ground ourselves in the will of God.  The stories of temptation tells us that the best way is not always the easiest way.  Let us not put God to the test in proving our faith . . . let us choose wisely.  Remember, it is always our choice.  Amen.