Title: The Man Born Blind
Scripture: John 9:1-41
Delivered: Calvary Moravian Church, Allentown, PA; March 30, 2014
All week long, I’ve been wondering how I would get a new members sermon from a scripture text about a man born blind, whom Jesus made to see with a mixture of dirt and spit. In Seminary, we learned that we’re not supposed to take scripture and contort it to what we want it to say – that’s called isogesis. Instead, we’re supposed to exegete scripture, or, study what comes out of the text. So, how was Jesus helping a man who was born blind to see, a new members’ sermon?
You may have noticed by now that my sermons tend to take a bit of a sad, dark approach. I don’t mean for that to happen – I just get frustrated sometimes. But I didn’t want our new members to leave here feeling blue, or wondering what they’ve gotten themselves into. You reaffirmed your faith, today, in this public setting of loving people. It is now our pleasure to call you “brothers”.
So how would I take this sermon about Jesus and a blind man, and turn it into a new members sermon? You may have some ideas of your own in your mind; that’s what Br. Rick Bruckart, who was our anniversary preacher, was talking about when he said “you are to preach with me.” I hope that you will allow your own faith journeys to preach with me this morning.
Let’s start with some statistics. In 1940, about when this Congregation was organized, regular church attendance in the United States was about 25%. By 1960, regular church attendance in the United States was about 45%. Today, regular church attendance in the United States is again about 25%.
Now I obviously did not live through the 1950s and 1960s, but I’ve seen a few episodes of Leave it to Beaver and I Love Lucy, so I’m pretty much an expert. That mid-century era was a very interesting time. On the one end was a world war, and on the other end was the Vietnam war. And in between those two wars (and of course, the Korean war) seems to be a period of strange optimism and change, despite the persistent threat of nuclear fallout. Take, for example, the style of furniture in those days, and the rapid technological advances. To me its an optimism that says, if we put our hearts and minds to it, we can go to the moon and beyond – literally. But then, isn’t the unspoken thought, we need to go to the moon, because we might need to live there soon?
So its a paradox.
Now what is it about that seemingly random blip in church attendance? I wonder if church attendance was higher in those days, not because people were any more pious, but because 1) people were desperately searching for meaning in a time of rapid change, in a period of rapid economic growth, and, of course, in a time of civil rights changes, and also because 2) going to church seemed like a civic responsibility. So, we were looking both for meaning, and to promote democracy and morality.
Now, I don’t mean to celebrate the mid-century. I don’t know if I have the fortitude to live during that period. You were strong people who lived during those days. We live in amazing times today. And the church is at a crossroads. It means something to be a new member, today. When but a quarter of the population participates in a Church community, by joining a church, you are actually making a commitment; a commitment to be different.
Each of us has made the decision to be here today, and each of us has acknowledged that there is meaning, purpose, and calling to our lives that we seek to discern and to live out.
And Christ’s church is at a crossroads today, and he needs capable, discerning people to be his hands and feet, heart and mouth.
I observe two illustrations from the last week.
On the one hand, RuPaul, who is a famous drag queen, observed in an interview on Friday, that “each of us is an eternal spiritual being, trapped for a short time in a fleshly body.” He also said, “we’re all born naked, and the rest is drag.” I’ll let you preach with that wisdom for a moment.
A coalition of Christian businesses have gone to the Supreme Court demanding that the health insurance companies they have contracted not be permitted to offer contraceptives and other related healthcare services that primarily benefit working class women.
Both of these observations are profound statements, from opposing perspectives, about the relationship of spirit and flesh. Its just that one of them sounds like it comes from the Pharisees.
So when I was thinking about the man born blind, now able to see – what a miracle – I was thinking that could be a pretty good “new members sermon”. And it would be a fine one.
But maybe – at this time and place in our culture – the more important new members sermon is to be found in the back and forth grumbling of the Pharisees. When this group of learned, earnest people, who honestly wanted to do good for their people learned that Jesus had performed a miracle, and that a man who was blind was now able to see – they did not stop to celebrate the mystery of what had just happened. They did not allow themselves to be perplexed at what just happened. At the very least, they didn’t even offer any hugs or high fives. Instead, they immediately began to condemn Jesus for “working on the sabbath”, and they began trying to figure out whose fault it was that the man was blind in the first place.
As our culture wrestles with meaning, as the nations still madly rage, and as we individually, in the somber depths of nighttime, seek to make sense of our place in the world, we affirm our faith in Christ by being led through the mysteries of life.
Christianity isn’t particularly effective as a solitary individual. Christ calls us to be companions to one another through our lives journeys. If the Pharisees had said to the man born blind, “wow, what has happened here really puzzles me, let’s try to make sense of this, together,” Jesus would have been much more sympathetic. Instead, They were probably frustrated that they couldn’t explain what was happening, so they immediately sought to destroy what was happening.
Throughout the gospel of John, there is a distinction between spirit and flesh. Do you remember how Nicodemus needed to be born both of the spirit and of the flesh? Do you remember how the woman at the well, seeking water, learned that she also needed spiritual water? Do you also remember how both of those people were pretty puzzled by what Jesus was telling them?
It is puzzling. The best summary I have heard, recently, is that of RuPaul, “we are each eternal, spiritual beings, trapped temporarily in fleshly bodies.”
And Jesus said, “we must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.”
Indeed it is tempting to nourish only our physical bodies. That is how we see the world; through eyes, looking at objects. Many people are out at brunch right now – which I’ll admit, does sound delicious – but they are at brunch because they seek to nourish their bodies. But when we see the world only through empirical facts and figures; when we seek only immediate answers to very difficult questions; when we seek meaning only as people of the flesh, when we refuse to be led by the spirit of God, and when refuse to be travelling companions with one another, we are refusing to nourish our souls.
And soon, night is coming, when no one can see. But the spirit is eternal.
Sometimes, when I forget what I’m supposed to be doing, what my job description is, I think of the phrase “spiritual activist.” I think that’s a good job description. It is my job – and your job – to be spiritual activists, together. That’s what makes us traveling companions, sisters and brothers. Let me use a fleshy and spiritual metaphor. When I see a big rock, trapping someone in a tomb, it is my job to get as many people together as needed, to push that rock out of the way. I can’t do it by myself, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to hear the “I’m trapped!” shouts, if God didn’t lead us there. If someone is hungry, we feed them. If someone is crying, we comfort them. Its really very simple, but we’ve been trained for so long that Christians are these misguided, pharisaic, moralistic people. We’ve been blinded by the dark night.
But being people of the flesh and spirit, you who have reaffirmed your faith today have professed something very difficult. You have not only confessed that you believe in the incomprehensible God as a creator, as a redeemer, and as a comforter and sustainer, but also that you are ready and willing to lead a life of Grace, living in the gifts of God, and extending that grace to others. These are things of mystery.
As we embrace these new brothers into the fold, let us be reminded of our purpose here on this earth, as fleshly and spiritual beings: to work the works of him who sent us, and who will one day call us home.