Saturday, March 22, 2008

New World

New World
Matthew 28:1-10
Easter Sunday
23 March 2008

I almost decided not to preach this morning. This wasn’t because I wanted to stay home and eat Easter candy, though there were at least two people in my family who would happily have done just that. It’s just that I wasn’t sure I would be up for preaching today.

You see, on Thursday night, not long after we got home from our Maundy Thursday service, I learned that my 24 year-old cousin had been killed in an explosion on my uncle’s farm. It has been a devastating loss, and I have been wrecked over it. So I wondered how I could possibly stand up here, three days later, and proclaim good news, when the news and the images swirling in my head have been anything but good. My heart is a graveyard.

But here is also the truth: the best news I ever heard came from a graveyard. If the good news of Christ’s rising can’t be proclaimed in the face of death, then where on earth can it be proclaimed with any truth at all? If we cannot stand in our grief and announce through tears and gritted teeth, “Our Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!” then how can we say it any other time, with any relevance at all?

Some of us come this morning with fresh and terrible grief. There have been losses sustained in this congregation, through death, and illness, and injury quite recently, and there is good reason to grieve. Whether or not your grief is fresh, all of us have behind us a string of tombstones – losses stretched out over the years of our lives as testimony of the sure sadness that comes with loving. And when we look ahead, we can count on seeing more tombstones in that direction as well. To live is to lose. To love is to lose.

Death is natural to life. And yet the fact of it feels cruel and unnatural. I have heard people who have lived very long, very good lives say at the end in the face of the grave, “Why? Why is this happening to me?” Few of us go gently. And yet death – our own and that of everyone we love – is a fact, a certainty. It’s the one thing we can count on.

And so it was that when the stone was placed at the mouth of Jesus’ tomb that Friday evening, what was sealed was a certainty. Death. Jesus was dead. Just one of a million billion deaths in the span of human history. Life goes on. Death goes on.

What happened next, though, was the least natural thing of all. When we try to get our minds around resurrection, we use familiar natural imagery. It’s like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly! we say. It’s like a flower shooting forth from a dead-looking bulb! we say. It’s like winter turning into spring! we say.

Only it’s not like any of that, is it? I mean, have you ever seen someone get up out of their grave and start living again? If you had, you surely would not compare it to a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, would you? It is not what is supposed to happen. That caterpillar wasn’t dead. That bulb wasn’t dead. We know that spring always follows winter. But real life after real death is simply not in the natural order of things. And what Jesus went through was a real death. What his friends went through was a real grief. With no expectation of its undoing.

With puffy eyes and broken hearts, the women go to see his tomb. Only what they find there defies all the facts. An earthquake, an angel, the look of lightning, the stone rolled back, emptiness. And then a new word, which will mean a new world: “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly, and tell. He is going ahead of you, and you will see him.”

From a graveyard, from a tomb, a new world is spoken into being. He is not here. He has been raised. But do you hear what the angel’s invitation is? Come, see the place where he lay. In other words, look at death, it is real, no denying it. See where he lay. But then, go, and tell – he is not here – then you will see him. Out there, in the new world he has made by his rising.

His resurrection is not the denial of death – it is its undoing. It is not the denial of grief – it is its answer. Grief? Yes, you will face it. A lot of it. Come to the graveyard, see where he lay. He knows grief and death, too. But then? See this too: he is not here. He is not in our graveyards. He has sprung the lock of all our certainties. He has rolled back the stone that sealed all our facts. Those facts include not only death, but sin, betrayal, denial, deceit, despair. All our old realities are now part of the old world. But he has gone ahead of us, off the old map, into a new world.

What does this mean? We can scarcely imagine or understand. We have often spoken of it as having to do with heaven, an afterlife. But surely his rising means more than that. Even pagans believe in an afterlife; they see it as a natural next step in the cycle of life. Jesus means more. He always means more. His rising does not mean only an afterworld. It means a new world. For you, for me, for anyone willing to look for him beyond the graveyard.

It is hard to see his new world, or even the signs of it, because the old one fills our vision so much. We are accustomed to its ways – the ways of force, and manipulation, and self-reliance, and death. The way of Jesus takes us off that map. A new world charted by his way, and lit by his light. We recognize it sometimes, when startling reversals happen, when things that aren’t supposed to happen do, and they are good. We recognize it when hope lights on us when we least expect it and most need it. We recognize it when comfort comes, when peace descends, when love flows, and all of it from beyond ourselves. We recognize it in each other.

And when we cannot recognize it, or see any sign of it, we try to trust, and we help each other trust. He has gone ahead of us, he is up ahead still, and sometimes the best we can do is see not where he is, but where he has already been. See where he lay? He is not here; for he has been raised. So we stumble forward, in fear and great joy, and in hope.

It used to be that this continent we live on was considered a new world. The New World. At first, people in the Eastern Hemisphere didn’t know it existed. Then some people said they discovered it, which is to say that they found something that was already true and real. But some people still didn’t believe it existed. It was not the kind of thing easily proven, except for those who encountered it themselves.

In the late 1500s, Sir Walter Raleigh, an explorer and adventurer, went on multiple expeditions to the Americas. In the movie, Elizabeth: The Golden Ages, a fictionalized account of that era, he gives a compelling speech to Queen Elizabeth, who has never ventured beyond England’s shores:

Can you imagine what it is to cross an ocean? For weeks, you see nothing but the horizon, perfect and empty. You live in the grip of fear, fear of storms, fear of sickness onboard, fear of the immensity. So you … study your charts, watch your compass, pray for a fair wind, and hope. Pure, naked, fragile hope.

At first, it’s no more than a haze on the horizon. So you watch. You watch. Then it’s a smudge. A shadow on the front water. For a day. For another day. The stain slowly spreads along the horizon taking form until on the third day, you let yourself believe. You dare to whisper the word: Land. Land. Life. Resurrection. The true adventure. Coming out of the vast unknown, out of the immensity, into new life. That, your majesty, is the New World.


Did you know that one of the ancient symbols for the church is a ship? It’s true. We are in this boat together, holding onto our fragile hope, scanning the horizon for the new world Christ has already brought into being by his rising. It is there. It is already true. Many before us have already set foot on it, have already embraced the great adventure of faith.

That adventure is ours, too. We huddle together in the hull of this old ship, trying to follow the course he charted by his living, and his dying, and his rising. There are times we cannot believe it is true, that his New World exists. We find it hard to see it, to trust it, to take hold of it. But listen. You may not be able to see, but can you hear? Can you hear it? The witness of the angel, and the women, and of all the other explorers before us? Sometimes it’s just a whisper. Sometimes it’s a shout. Sometimes it is said in defiance, or through pain, or with faltering voice. Sometimes it is sung. Always it is said with countless others, including those on another shore. In the darkest night, its truth still holds. It is the one true thing. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

What We Know

What We Know
John 9:1-41
4th Sunday in Lent
2 March 2008

He can see now.

He was born blind. Been blind his whole life. Now he can see.

What is their response? Joy? Celebration? Do they throw him a party, tell all their friends and neighbors, show him all the things he’s never seen before, give glory to God for the healing?

No. They interrogate him. They talk about him but don’t listen to him. They discount him and dismiss him. They vilify and revile him. They drive him out. This is how they – the religious ones – respond to the best news this guy has ever gotten. He can see now.

They cannot.

John begins his gospel by announcing that “the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world…. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, he gave power to become children of God.” (1:9, 11-12). It is the central and startling irony of John’s Gospel – that his own people rejected the light he came to bring. This morning’s rich and dramatic story of the man born blind brings this sad truth into sharp focus.

The blind man sits on the side of the road, begging. As Jesus and the disciples walk along, the disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” They treat him as a problem not a person. They want to know who sinned, whose fault it is that the man is blind, deficient. They see the world as a neat system of cause and consequence, so if something has gone terribly wrong – like a baby being born blind – then someone has to be to blame. Teacher, who sinned?

But the Teacher’s light burns through their small and controlled understandings of how the world works. “No one sinned,” he replies. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” [In other words,] Quit theorizing about why the suffering is there, and start responding with God’s good for God’s glory. Stop seeking blame or cause, and start seeking to serve.

And Jesus heals the man. Mixes mud with saliva and spreads it on his eyes. A kind of earthy baptism. He tells the man to go wash in the pool of Siloam, and the man must hear some power and authority in that voice, because that is what he does. And when he pulls his head out of the water, he can see. First light comes streaming into eyes that have only ever known darkness. He can see.

The neighbors want to know how it happened, so he tells them. They want to know where the man who did it went. “I do not know,” the man says. So they take the man to the religious authorities. They want to know how this happened, so he tells them. They say it couldn’t be true, because the man who healed him did it on the Sabbath, and how could a sinner perform such a miracle? So they decide the guy is lying. He wasn’t really born blind.

They haul in his parents. Under questioning this parents admit, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him.”

So for the second time they bring in the man who had been blind. They say about Jesus, “We know this man is a sinner.” He answers, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

On the surface, this story seems to be about the recovery of physical sight. But John always has at least two stories going at once, and the deeper story here has to do with another kind of sight, a deeper kind of knowing. John uses the verb “to know” 11 times in these 41 verses. In Greek, there are two words for knowing – ginosko and oida. John uses both words throughout his gospel with startling frequency, using them both more than any other book in the New Testament. But in this story, he only uses one of the two verbs: oida, which has, at its root, the verb “to see” (id-). (1) Every time in this story that someone claims to know something, they are simultaneously claiming to see it. And when the man says he can now see, he is also claiming a new knowledge.

There are a whole lot of people claiming knowledge in this story – the disciples, the neighbors, the Pharisees. But the man who was born blind mostly claims not to know things. Throughout the story, it’s like his refrain under interrogation: I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know – but one thing I do know; I was blind, now I see. How could that not be enough?

But it is not enough for them; they push. “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” They cannot accept the bare fact of this good news. They cannot rejoice over something wonderful because it wasn’t supposed to happen, and it wasn’t supposed to happen this way, and it wasn’t supposed to happen at the hands of an unsanctioned prophet. This man stands in their midst, looking at them with new eyes, eyes that can see for the first time ever, and all they can do is argue and interrogate.

And isn’t this the way it goes? It’s so hard, terribly hard for some of us, to allow new experience to overturn old understandings. But this is what Jesus does from the start, proclaiming reversals, challenging old assumptions, undoing the bad news of people’s old lives. It’s how the church was born – his resurrection radically upending all the old realities, like sin and death, and setting into motion a whole new way of being. What a tragic irony, then, that the church – born out of freeing experiences of God in Christ – has become an institution that is so frequently cautionary and moralizing, resistant to new revelation, new experience, new forms of the Spirit’s power in our midst. (2) We presume to know how things are supposed to work, why things are the way they are, how they are supposed to be, what can and cannot rightly be done, and who’s a sinner.

The Pharisees, thinking they were serving God, rejected Jesus and the work he did. In how many ways does the church, thinking we are serving Jesus, in fact reject him and the work he means to do in our midst?

If we want to be people of his light, then we open ourselves to the shining of that light in whatever ways it comes. It’s all right if that light comes into another person’s life in a way that contradicts our own experience or understanding. It’s all right, if we can’t explain it, or find it hard to believe or embrace. The blind man’s story teaches us that maybe it’s even better if we are ignorant of such things. His ignorance was his humility. What made him able to receive the knowledge that mattered was the fact that he wasn’t too concerned about knowing so many things that didn’t.

And what knowledge did matter? What knowledge does matter? The Pharisees knew so much. They knew the laws about what could and couldn’t be done on the Sabbath. They knew that a blind person was born entirely in sins. They knew that God had spoken to Moses, and they knew the laws of Moses. When it came to Jesus, they said, “As for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” Case closed. Healer and healed dismissed.

The blind man’s witness falls on deaf ears, but he answers one last time anyway. “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.” The man born blind will not judge Jesus according to the Pharisees’ categories. He will judge Jesus according to the gift Jesus has given. (3)

Have you ever received a gift that changed your life? Have you ever had your eyes opened in some unexpected way? We call it grace, and we call it amazing, and if we really have new eyes, then we start letting what we see through Christ reshape what we know. We let it challenge our certitudes, even about things we thought really, really mattered. We keep telling anyone who will listen the one thing we know – our experience with Christ. We keep embracing it, and whatever fresh experience may come. We live into it. We let it shed its light onto how we live.

And if you haven’t had any of that kind of experience, you open yourself to it. The blind man didn’t make it happen. He didn’t create his own reality; he didn’t pull himself up by the bootstraps and think himself positively into a new direction. Jesus sought him out, and he accepted what Jesus brought, he accepted how Jesus changed him.

In the end, the ones who thought they knew the truth drove out the man who only knew one thing – that once he was blind, and now he could see. And Jesus came and found him then, too. And for the first time, the man lays eyes on the face of the One who gave him new sight, and new life. And he worships him. [This is how it is for us, too. Whatever seeing we have now, whatever knowing we have now, is only ever partial, until we meet him face-to-face.]

Jesus has a final word to say about the ones who thought they knew. He completely inverts their definition of sin. It is not defined by the presence of illness. It is not even defined by violation of the law. Sin is a resistance that closes us to the presence and works of God in the world. (4)

Many of us have well-defended certainties. They bring us comfort, security, maybe even a sense of righteousness. But it is not likely that they bring us into the life-transforming light of new sight. In the end, if we are honest, there is a whole lot about faith that we do not know, cannot explain. If we are honest, we are blind, ignorant, or presumptive about so much.

The man who was blind shows us the way. His stance is the opposite of resistance. He sits by the roadside, and he begs. And one day, when a man he cannot even see walks up with light in his eyes and healing in his hands and touches him, the blind man lifts his chin and lets the light come in.

He can see now. What about you? What about us?

(1) Gail O’Day. The Word Disclosed. 78.
(2) Paul Simpson Duke. The Right Expertise.
(3) Gail O’Day. The Word Disclosed. 79.
(4) Ibid. 86.