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Entrenching oneself in absolute certainty is a sure-fire way to fend off fresh encounters with the living God…Here’s a sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A:
An Eye-Opening Experience
A Sermon on John 9
We are born into this world equipped with adjustable lenses in our eyes. Depending on what we look at, our lenses thin out or get thicker so that the eye can focus more clearly. What often happens, or even what usually happens is that as our eyes get some age on them, the lenses start losing their flexibility, and they can’t adjust as well any more. So folks start holding the newspaper out farther and farther trying to see it clearly, or they do what I’m doing which is adjust the position of their glasses according to the task at hand. No question about it: it’s time to go to the eye doctor.
That’s what was wrong with the synagogue leaders in our scripture today. That’s what was going on with their spiritual lenses. They had gotten so stuck on seeing God and God’s will one particular way that they resisted Jesus’ new message from God. Their spiritual lenses were hard and rigid. They either couldn’t adjust, or didn’t want to adjust, or maybe both. Jesus diagnosed the problem as blindness.
That diagnosis seems obvious to us. When Jesus gave the gift of physical sight to a man who had been born blind, you would think that the whole town would rejoice and give thanks to God. You’d think they’d be eager to know Jesus and listen to everything he had to say.
But no! Instead of erupting in joy and thanksgiving, the whole town erupted in arguments. The man’s neighbors doubted what they saw. This man must be an imposter, some said. He can’t be the same man who was born blind. As we heard in the lesson, the man had to insist again and again to people who had known him all his life, “Look! It is me! This man Jesus made mud packs, put them on my eyes, sent me to wash in the pool of Siloam, and I did. And now I can see!”
Instead of recognizing the presence and power of God, the religious leaders argued with the man about Jesus. “Jesus isn’t from God,” they insisted. “He can’t be! He broke the law! He worked on the Sabbath. That makes him a sinner. If he really were from God, he would keep the law. Now don’t you go following him. If you do, we are going to kick you out of the congregation.” (more…)
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Image by mtgf93 via Flickr
The Common Cup
A Sermon on John 4 and Ephesians 2
Jesus’ disciples were shocked to see him conversing with a woman in public. It just wasn’t done. Jewish men did not speak to women in public, unless they were immediate family members. And even then they kept the conversation to a minimum. Jesus’ disciples would have been even more shocked if they had heard him ask to drink from the woman’s water jar.
It was challenge enough that he had taken them into Samaritan territory. Like people now wishing to avoid going through a bad neighborhood, most Jews were willing to detour way out of the way in order to avoid going through Samaria on the way to Galilee. But not Jesus. John says that Jesus had to go through Samaria. And any time scripture says Jesus had to do something, it really means he had to do it. He was determined to do it. He was determined to go through Samaria, even though Jews considered that enemy territory.
The hostility between Jews and Samaritans ran deep. It was both racial and religious. Jewish parents taught their children to see Samaritans as half-breeds, impure people that were descended from the remnants of the old northern kingdom of Israel and Assyrians and whatever other nationality the Assyrian empire dumped there way back in the 700s BC. What’s more, Jewish children learned that Samaritan religion was corrupt. Mt. Zion, another name for Jerusalem, is the mountain of God, and that’s where everybody ought to worship God. The Samaritans think Gerizim is God’s mountain. They’re wrong.
Meanwhile, Samaritan children were also learning. “Those Jews are heretics,” their elders taught them. “Their religion is corrupt. Only the five books of Moses—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—truly are sacred scripture. The Jews have added books that ought not to be there. God’s word is clear: Mt. Gerizim is the mountain of God. That’s where people ought to worship. Don’t you children ever forget what those Jews did to us in 128 BC when they destroyed our temple on Mt. Gerizim.”
The pain between Jew and Samaritan ran deep, like that between Israeli and Palestinian, Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda, Northern Irish Catholic and Northern Irish Protestant, native born citizens and immigrants. (more…)
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There are times when a congregation needs to make a major move. This year my home congregation, the Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church, is celebrating the centennial of a major move. When the church was founded in 1876, the Kirk’s building was literally perched on a cliff in Spotsylvania County, Virginia—hence the name. By the dawn of the twentieth century, however, the church members had migrated away from the community in the neighborhood of the building. It would still be years before cars made travel easier. And since the people of the Kirk still depended on horses and buggies and their own feet to get to church, they had a problem.
What did they do? The congregation decided to move the building closer to where they actually lived. In 1911 new land was given, and they went to work. They dismantled the church building piece by piece, loaded it onto horse-drawn wagons, moved it to its present location and reassembled it. With the exception of some bricks and a few boards, every piece survived intact. The congregation more than survived. Today the church is still called Kirk O’Cliff even though the cliff is ten miles away and covered by the waters of Lake Anna. As I think about the passion, the commitment, and the sheer sweat that dismantling, moving, and rebuilding required, I marvel.
When it comes to the church and our congregations in 2011, I wonder what God is planning to “dismantle,” “move,” and “assemble” in a new way now. People who need the embrace of Jesus have moved out of range of the church, so some kind of move is necessary. It is going to require prayerful passion, prayerful commitment and prayerful sweat. The parable of the bridesmaids in Matthew 25 reminds us to keep oil in our lamps in order to be ready when the Lord comes and calls. Maybe we had better keep our wagon wheels greased and ready to roll, too.
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Landon Whitsitt is a Presbyterian pastor in Missouri and current Vice-Moderator of the PC(USA) General Assembly. He definitely has a way with words, both written and spoken. His blog is The Metanoia Project. Here he is in a bracing YouTube video about church growth with an interesting twist for Jesus’ disciples in small congregations: Mission: Metanoia – Church Growth. “Chill out!”
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Image by ewheeling via Flickr
The body of Christ is not whole without all its parts. That also means it is not whole without Christ’s disciples who have disabilities. Here is another sermon in my series on disability.
A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 12:12-27
(With allusions to Luke 14:1-24)
I don’t think the congregation at Corinth intended it to happen, but some church members found themselves feeling unneeded, unimportant, and unwanted. How did this happen? Just like people in the world around them, the Corinthians were preoccupied with where they stood on the social ladder, the status ladder, and the authority ladder. Who was strong, who was weak, and who was somewhere in the middle?
Some claimed that a special allegiance to Paul, or Apollos or Peter placed them on the upper rungs of the church. Others asserted that their superior spiritual gifts placed them at the top of the ladder. Now consider what this meant to those who didn’t have special connections and flashy gifts.
This state of affairs—division—was even apparent at the communion table, THE place where divisions are supposed to disappear. In Corinth, the Lord’s Supper was celebrated along with a regular dinner. Reflecting the Corinthian social ladder outside the church, wealthier church members enjoyed lavish meals before the poorer working class people even arrived. Just like the first-class passengers on an airplane, the upper class church members enjoyed better food, and those who didn’t have such resources were put to shame. Some were completely left out. There wasn’t a place at the table for them. They went home hungry.
With all this judging and comparing going on, no wonder some of the church members were labeled weak. They may have even labeled themselves weak, second class, not valuable, not needed.
There’s a class of people in the modern world that all too often knows what it is to be labeled and left out. In many ways the world tells people with disabilities that they are second class. In a recent Presbyterian Outlook magazine, former PC(USA) General Assembly Moderator Marj Carpenter described the hostile responses she experienced when she was using a wheelchair and traveling frequently by air. She wrote, “I found out that the average person on the street—and in the airport—simply does not care. They only care about their schedules and their space. (more…)
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