Sunday, September 30, 2018
Intrusive Grace (Sermon)
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Years ago, I read a book entitled, The Christ-Haunted Landscape. In the book, Susan Ketchin compiles short stories or excerpts from novels by twelve southern writers whose work frequently includes religious themes. After each reading, Ketchin interviews the writer.
Most of the authors grew up in the church and know the Bible fairly well. With only two or three exceptions, however, all of these wonderfully creative people have left the church, and many of them for rather uncreative reasons: Busyness or weariness of hypocrisy. Others really struggled with the whole idea of faith.
Randall Kenan, an African-American writer from Chinquapin, NC, says, “I was having a lot of trouble in college about faith…My doubt arose when I realized that my religion came from a cultural happenstance, when, where, and to whom I was born. Most of us inherit our religion,” he says, “[And] that really bothered me.”1
I understand that. Religion was in the air I breathed and the water I drank, too. Maybe the same was true for you. And isn’t that the nature of an inheritance? Be it the gift of an estate or the curse of a congenital disease, an inheritance comes a result of who we are. And while we might walk away from a bank account, we can’t just walk away from a birthmark or heart disease.
The influence of an inherited faith may feel like it has more in common with the legacy of a congenital disease than a beach house. Even if we do walk away from the church after having been raised in it, the stories linger. Certain tunes and lyrics still creep into our thoughts. There will always be something familiar about the cadence of the Lord’s Prayer, or the Apostles’ Creed, or Psalm 23. And, depending on our experiences, the very idea of worship will give rise to feelings of hope, or joy, or fear, or boredom.
When Presbyterians speak of this truth, we often use that loaded term “predestination.” We’ve been argued with and scoffed at because of it, and that’s because few people really understand the biblical concept of predestination. The engaging story of Jesus healing the man born blind can help us with it.
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?”
9Some were saying, “It is he.”
Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.”
He kept saying, “I am the man.”
10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”
11He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.”
12They said to him, “Where is he?”
He said, “I do not know.”
13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight.
He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.”
16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.”
But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.
17So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”
He said, “He is a prophet.”
18The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?”
20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind;21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.”
22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
24So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.”
25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
27He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”
28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”
30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
36He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.”
37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”
38He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.
39Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”
41Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.(NRSV)
Jesus and his disciples notice a man blind from birth. He’s begging for alms, which is the only career track for blind people in that cultural context. Steeped in their own inherited tradition, the disciples understand and engage the world in terms of retributive justice. So, they ask, “Whose sin caused this man to be born blind?”
Jesus says, in effect, God doesn’t cause suffering. God enters suffering for the sake of those who suffer.
Then, without asking the man if he wants to be healed, without asking for a profession of faith, Jesus spits on the ground, makes a couple of tiny mud pies, rubs them on the man’s eyelids, and heals him.
The man quickly becomes the talk of the town – and on the Sabbath, no less. Angry Pharisees begin to question the man. As the inquisition progresses, the man’s responses begin to move from oblivious wonder to honest faith. At first it was simply, ‘Jesus put mud on my eyes and told me to wash. I did, and now I can see.’ Next, he affirms Jesus as a prophet. Then he boldly challenges the Pharisees. Listen to you,he says.You don’t know who he is, but he opened my eyes. Everybody knows that God works like this only through people who are faithful and just.
When he finally lays eyes on Jesus, the man says, “Lord, I believe.”
Grace often does that. It intrudes on our lives. It comes as an inheritance – something unearned and uninvited. It makes me think of the tortuously privileged lives of British royalty. Born into a family that mustmaintain a very public and scripted protocol, those folks belong to their inheritance more that it belongs to them. And for the good of their culture, most of them uphold their roles pretty well – at least outwardly.
For Christians, predestination is about inheriting more than a particular tradition or belief. It’s about inheriting a responsibility. It is about being the church, the “ekklesia,” the “called out ones.” It’s about being thrust into a remarkable story and engaging the world according to the new and unnervingly gracious terms of that story.
We who inherit faith often find ourselves doubtful of what and why we believe. Maybe we do get put off by arrogance, hypocrisy, and relentless scandal in the church – or by the church’s failure to speak both prophetically and joyfully into our privileged and increasingly selfish culture. Maybe we get too busy to care anymore. Or maybe we pull away because of unresolvable questions about the arbitrary horror of human suffering, or, like Randall Kenan, the arbitrariness of our own inclusion in faith itself.
These are all important and necessary questions. They’re part of the process of claiming faith as a gift rather than a congenital disease.
The young people in this congregation either have been or may be baptized into the covenant of God’s intrusive grace. And if they’re here, it’s because you bring them. When they’re old enough to think for themselves and to ask their own questions, what will happen?
If we used the Sabbath to teach them that what matters is getting, owning, and controlling, if we teach them to care for themselves first, if we teach them to fear, they will leave here diseased, blind from birth. And they will either become carriers of a hereditary disorder, or they will they leave in search of a cure.
But, if we use the Sabbath to say Here’s mud in your eye,
If we seek to celebrate the image of God within us,
If we teach them to seek the image of God in others,
If we teach them that people matter more than expensive stuff in our sanctuaries,
If we teach them – by example – to trust the kingdom of God before we trust earthly kingdoms,
If we teach them to receive faith as a proclivity toward love rather than a burden of Pharisaic self-righteousness,
If we teach them that the very creation around us is a self-revelation of God and that we are its stewards,
Then maybe, just maybe, they will see with their hearts and live in such a way that bears grateful witness to God’s intrusive grace in their lives and in the world.
What they see and receive is what we see and give to them.
1Susan Ketchin, The Christ-Haunted Landscape: Faith and Doubt in Southern Fiction. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson. 1994. P. 297.