Today, I had the pleasure of worshiping with the people of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Seattle. Here is the sermon I shared.
Collect for the 4th Sunday in Lent
Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
1 Samuel 16:1-13 (Samuel finds David)
Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”)
Ephesians 5:8-14 (“Live as children of light”)
John 9:1-41 (“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”)
God has called you. Yes, I’m talking to you. Here. Now. One of the benefits of preaching three Sundays in a row is that I can build on what I have said. Two weeks ago, I talked about Abraham, who was a bit of a schmuck. He was an opportunist and an adventurer, perhaps a bit of a con-man. And he was God’s friend. You need a bit of a rogue to found a people, a bit of a con-man to convince your followers and the leaders of the surrounding countries, to recognize the nation of Israel. And I do believe he became a better person through his relationship with God. The Lord brought him out of Ur and into Canaan, but also led him to a better understanding of himself, and of his family. He was reckoned as righteous, not because of his perfection, but because of his friendship with God. Last week, I talked about Photini, the woman at the well, who clearly led an interesting life. No doubt she would have been thought head-strong, flirtatious, and improper by the respectable people of Sychar. And she became Jesus’ friend. You need to be a bit impetuous to preach the gospel. You need to be willing to defy the expectations of society, to show people a new way. Perhaps being flirtatious helps if you’re in the business of meeting new people. And I do believe she became a better person through her conversation with the Messiah. I believe she found a new focus for her life. This week we get the man born blind. “’Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.’” Now, it would be rather cold-blooded for God to say, “Let’s make someone blind so we can show off.” I don’t think that’s what Jesus is going for here. Instead, in his usual, carefully focused way, Jesus is answering the question, “Why is he blind?” It’s not about “what caused his blindness?” but “what does it mean to us?” How are we called to be God’s people, in light of his blindness? We keep saying, “it’s bad that he is this way.” And Jesus says, “it’s good that we can respond.” Jesus looks forward. I do not deny that blindness can be a hardship. Nor do I deny that Abraham and Photini had each sinned in their own way. But Jesus comes to each of us exactly where we are, weighs us, and puts us to use, bringing about the kingdom of heaven. If anyone reveals this truth, surely it is the first kings of Israel, Saul and David. Their reigns look like something written for a soap opera, sex and violence, selfishness and political intrigue, adultery, betrayal, and even necromancy. Basically, Game of Thrones. The Israelites wanted a king and this is what they got. The books of Samuel and Kings tell the tale. the people said, “we want a king!” And God said, “No you don’t.” “Look, he’s just going to put your sons in the army and your daughters in his household, and take your crops.” (In other words, expand the national government and raise taxes. Things don’t really change much.) And the people said, “No. We really want a king!” “Give us a king.” God said, “Yes” and gave them Saul. King Saul was handsome and strong and self-confident. People liked him and he was an effective military leader. He protected Israel from the neighboring kingdoms. But Saul forgot that his righteousness and kingship were based on a relationship with God and not on his being handsome and strong and self-confident. And so, Saul began to neglect his relationship with God. And so, God began looking for a new king. David was the second King of Israel, not quite so much the expected candidate, being a youngest son, less strong, perhaps, but more clever than Saul. And, for the most part, David was a good king, though he did have some problems with adultery and murder. Game of Thrones, remember. We can forget that scripture tells us our history and not just our aspirations. Israel was – and still is – a byword for faith and hope. God did a wondrous thing in creating the Kingdom of Israel, not because it’s founders were such impeccable symbols of righteousness, but because, in their relationship with God, they became part of something – the recreation of the world. Or we might consider the rise of the Church of England in the 16th century. I remember very clearly my first year of seminary. Bill Countryman, our Anglican Spirituality professor, was talking about the Tudors: Henry VIII, Mary, and Elizabeth. He said we tell their stories not because they were wonderful people, but because they are members of our family. They remind us what it means to be part of the story we find ourselves in. I can’t count the number of people who have said to me, “Anglican, really? Isn’t that a branch of Christianity founded on Henry VIII wanting a divorce.” “No. It has a lot more to do with finding a path between the extremes of Roman Catholicism and Calvinism.” But that’s beside the point. We remember Henry for the good he did – and the bad. We remember him because he had a relationship with God, and through him, we think good things happened. Coming back to today, you might think you are not the kind of person to be a prophet, or found a nation, or preach the gospel. Nonsense. I’m guessing none of you are as messed up as Abraham or Saul. Don’t get me started on Moses. Apparently, an entitled stammering murderer was what it took to get the Israelites out of Egypt. I’m joking. A little. I think. I really do believe Moses was an amazing individual, whose faith could move mountains. My point is that he became that – and we become that – through our relationship with God. We cannot – we must not – think it works in the opposite direction. If a man was born blind so that the world might learn to see, we respect God’s willingness to work with us, however and wherever and whatever we are. This is not a cop-out or an excuse or some way of saying “everything is okay.” Everything is not okay. You are not perfect just the way you are. And the world is not hunky-dory. And yet, the whole idea of grace comes wrapped up in a recognition of our own powerlessness and God’s power working in us. Knowing this removes all excuse. Whatever seems to be a weakness, can be an opportunity for God, when we let it be – when we stop letting our expectations for God get in God’s way. Are you a rogue? God needs rogues? Are you blind? God needs blind people? Are you doubtful, neurotic, poor, rich, angry, lazy, sad, silly, serious, manic, or depressed? God needs you. If Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, Peter and Photini can be servants of God, so can you. This is true of many saints, by the way. It’s generally agreed that Saint Francis was impossible to live with. No doubt there are many pleasant, patient, compassionate, wise saints as well, people passionately advocating for justice and infinitely fun to be around. …well, maybe not many, but a few. And again, that’s not the point. They are not saints because they are perfect, they are saints because we can see God working through them. You, too can be a saint. No one better. Really. Step one: see that this is a possibility and talk to God about it. Ask, seek, pray. Say, “God, make the world better through me” and see what happens. The Pharisees thought they saw clearly and so they were blind. They stopped asking and so they stopped hearing answers. The blind man suffered, but God saw his suffering and used it to make the world a better place. You can do this as well. You can be a witness to suffering, and you can work to redeem it. Look at the world and say, “What can I do?” Try stuff and see what happens. You will make mistakes. Bad mistakes. That’s what happens. But also, a little grace, a little improvement, a little light shining through. Maybe you’ve started already. I think you’ve started already. I know you’ve started already. That’s alright, too. Maybe you’re perfect. No worries. That’s not the point. The point is what comes next.