Giving up the Status Quo

The fourth in our series of “Giving it Up” features the story of the man born blind, the sixth of Jesus’ miraculous signs in the Gospel of John. Our theme was “Giving up the Status Quo,” so my sermon takes a look at how we deal with change. Changes, even good changes like the man experienced, can cause chaos and disruption in our lives.

One of the major themes of Lent is changing our habits (giving things up, renouncing old ways), so that our lives might align more closely with God’s purposes. What do you think? How have you dealt with changes–good or bad–in the past?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? Change, what’s that? Seriously, although this was a silly example, change can be really hard. Which is why this week for our “giving it up” series, we’re going to be thinking about “giving up the status quo.” Because doing that—giving up the status quo and accepting change—isn’t easy.

In our gospel reading, the man born blind undergoes a change. Through his encounter with Jesus, this man receives sight—and his whole life is changed. Although this is what you would assume is a good, even great, change for this man, it’s not necessarily received that way.

His neighbors and those who knew him at first can’t even decide if it’s really him. Some think it is him, others think it’s just someone who looks like him. Even when the man speaks up and assures them that he truly is the blind man, they still persist in their uncertainty—how is this possible, they wonder. How is this the same man?

Although nothing else about the man—his looks, his voice, his clothing—has changed, he is still unrecognizable to them. To them, his blindness was his identity. It was the single most important thing about him. How often do we define others, and ourselves, by some single part of our identity? More than we ought to, for sure. And more often than not, like the man born blind, the thing we identify someone by is some deficit, or negative.

Think with me, about how quick we are to assign negative identities: that’s so and so—she has cancer. Or, she’s a single mom. He lost his job last month. He’s a high school dropout. Or she’s been depressed  lately. We so often define people in terms of their shortcomings, or perceived deficits.

But we do it to ourselves, too. We let past setbacks and disappointments define how we see ourselves. We’ve gotten so good at defining others, at ourselves, by problems instead of possibilities, that sometimes we don’t know what to do when the situation changes. Like the neighbors of the man born blind who have defined him so fully in terms of his disability that they can’t recognize him when that blindness is gone.

And then, once these neighbors manage to accept that the man born blind has indeed been healed—they are unwilling to accept that this change is a good thing. His neighbors, even his own family members, seek to distance themselves from this miraculous change.

And at the end of the day, this change is too much for this community to deal with. For whatever reason, whether fear or doubt or distrust, the man born blind—maybe we ought to call him the man who can see—is kicked out of his community.

This change is just too much. We become so used to the status quo, that even if the status quo is bad, or not working, the uncertainty of change is too great a step to take. We’ve all been there before. When we do decide to make a change, or even when a change happens to us, unbidden, friends, loved ones, can’t accept the new situation. We might try to ignore the change and pretend everything is the same, or we might just drift away.

Because change is hard. It pushes us out of our comfort zones and makes us see things in new ways. Change is hard. But when Jesus comes onto the scene and into our lives, things start to change. When the one who turns water into wine is involved, change becomes the norm instead of the exception. The way we relate to God changes. Old divisions between Samaritans and Jews fade away. And even the one who is born blind can see.

When Jesus is a part of our life, things change. And that sounds good on the surface, but at its core, it’s disruptive, because change is always disruptive.

When God’s love in our lives changes the way we think of ourselves—it may upset some relationships. When we begin to value ourselves as much as God values us, we stop accepting less from others. We start making choices that build ourselves up, when so frequently society wants to tell us we are not enough.

When God’s justice changes the way we live our lives—it might cause disruption. Systems we took for granted might now be questioned. When we refuse to accept inequality, racism, sexism, and fear, we might be off-putting to old friends.

When God’s mercy changes our understandings of who deserves what—forgiveness, acceptance, love, mercy, grace—all become a way of life for us. But that type of life is difficult for others to accept.

When this type of change comes to town, we may begin to wonder whether change, even change that promises new life, is worth it. But it is so worth it. Jesus brings change into our lives, Jesus disrupts our lives, because the life Jesus wants for us isn’t just some sort of survival, or persistence, or merely the status quo, or any of the other ways we’ve excused only half-living life.

No, what Jesus wants for us is abundant life. Not just life, but abundant life. Abundant doesn’t mean perfect. Abundant doesn’t mean life without pain or hardships or problems. What abundant life means is being the people that God created us to be.

Accepting our neighbors, and loving our neighbors, the way that God loves them. Giving up patterns of behavior that are harmful to ourselves and to those around us. And accepting ourselves, loving ourselves, the way that God loves us. That is the abundant life that Jesus came to bring.

The status quo might be comfortable—but it does not bring abundant life. God does. God disrupts our lives and our patterns of being and existing, that we might see and have abundant life. Amen.

Giving up Superiority

In the third week of our Lenten series, the focus was “Giving Up Superiority.” The (very long) gospel reading was Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well. I encourage you to read that story first, if you didn’t hear it in church yesterday, because it is the focus of my sermon. If you’d like some more information about the history of Jews and Samaritans, check out this site from Franciscan

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today, in our giving it up series, we’re going to be talking about giving up superiority. I realized this week that while I thought I knew what superiority meant, the dictionary and I didn’t exactly agree. The dictionary’s definition of superiority reads: the state or fact of being better, more important, or higher in rank than others.

And once I read that, it made sense. There are times when one person is factually superior to another. For example, a superior at work is factually higher in rank than their subordinates. Or we could say that Michael Jordan is a superior basketball player, and I don’t think anyone would argue the facts with us.

But before I read that dictionary definition, I had been using the word superiority in a more subjective way. I thought of it as a state of mind—for example, we can feel superior to others without having any basis in fact for that feeling. Or we may know those who act superior, whether or not they truly fit the criteria.

Both of those definitions, the dictionary one and my own personal one, are at play in our gospel reading today. In Jesus’ encounter with the unnamed woman at the well, he has many, many reasons to feel and to act superior.

For starters, he is a man. And in the ancient world, that was a factually superior position to be in. In fact, he shouldn’t even be talking to a woman he doesn’t know in public. The proper thing to do would be to stay at least twenty feet away from her. Because that’s what superiority does—it distances us from others.

But Jesus had other reasons to feel superior: he was Jew, and this woman, well, she wasn’t. In fact she was a Samaritan. And Jews and Samaritans did not get along with each other. It was a bitter divide. The Samaritans descended from the Israelites who settled in the northern half of the kingdom, as opposed to the Judeans in the south.

When the monarchy was split, the Samaritans began worshipping at their own sacred sites in the north, while the Jews kept to the temple in Jerusalem. Both kingdoms were eventually overrun by foreign powers, and the Samaritans intermarried and took on many practices of the new culture. The Jews did not. Through the generations, the gap between them widened, with both sides despising the other.

The woman speaks truly when she says that Jesus should not be asking for water from her. To him, she should be unclean and unapproachable. Both have every reason to avoid each other, and Jesus in particular to feel superior.

But they both choose a different way. Jesus sets aside the superiority that might distance him from this woman, and instead reveals himself to be vulnerable. He is thirsty, but has no way to get water for himself. The woman could have walked away. The proper thing to do would have been not to respond, but instead, she engages with him. She offers her questions, her confusion, and together they can break through the things that might separate them to have a deeper conversation.

This is, in fact, the longest conversation that Jesus has with anyone. In all the gospels. And it only starts because each of them is willing to cross boundaries and divides and talk to someone society tells them they should ignore.

Jesus truly sees this woman. Not just her gender or her nationality, but sees her for who she is. She has had five husbands, and is now living with someone who is not her husband. Throughout the years, this woman has gained the reputation of being a somewhat loose woman. But that’s just not based in what we read here. There’s no mention of sin or of repentance, as there are in gospel stories.

But Jesus sees the tragedy and names the challenges that she faces. We don’t know what happened to her husbands: perhaps she’s been widowed, divorced, or abandoned. Five times would be tragic indeed, but not unheard of.

Whatever the case, her circumstances have led to an unpleasant life, which it is clear she wants to get away from. Coming to the well at noon by herself, instead of in the morning with the rest of the women lets us know just how isolated and outcast she is.

But to Jesus, her challenges do not make her unapproachable. Instead of seeing a social outcast, he sees a person who has worth and value. And they engage in deep conversation. Because of that conversation—this woman, this unnamed, outcast woman, becomes an evangelist.

She leaves her jar, she leaves her doubts, and goes back to her village to tell the people—the people who ostracized her, who ignored her—that she has found the Messiah. And many came to believe. This woman understood the living water that Jesus offered. The water that meant she had worth, the water that meant God was for her. And she had to tell others about it.

And none of it, not one bit of it, would have happened had she and Jesus not set aside the boundaries designed to separate them. Had they not laid aside superiority—real or imagined—used to keep us from recognizing the humanity and worth in others.

Who are our Samaritans? Who are the people that society tells us we’re superior to? Who are the peopl we might even feel superior to? Maybe it’s those who don’t have as much education as we do. Or those who can’t find or keep a job. Those who, for reasons of choice or circumstance, need help from others to get by. Those who are not as informed or as open-minded as we are.

When we are tempted towards superiority, what if we shared vulnerability instead? Because the truth of the matter is, like the woman at the well, God sees us at our most vulnerable—and says to each of us, I know who you are, and you are mine.

It is through our vulnerabilities that we experience the grace and love of God that is stronger than our weakness. And if we can be vulnerable with others, with others we don’t understand, we too might be able to see and engage with them.

Instead of building walls of superiority, we might be drawn closer to one another. And in that other person, we might just find the face of Jesus, who, though he was above all, made himself vulnerable. Who took on our very human weaknesses and vulnerabilities, that we might see and hear the good news. That we might partake of the living water that we may never be thirsty again. Amen.

Giving up Expectations

The second in our Lenten Series, “Giving it Up,” features “Giving Up Expectations.” This sermon is based mostly on Jesus’ nighttime encounter with Nicodemus. What do you think? Have you ever found yourself limiting your expectations of yourself or others, or even God?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

In this second sermon of our series, thinking about things we might “Give up” for Lent, we’re going to be talking about giving up expectations. Now, I’d like to say upfront, we obviously can’t ever give up expectations entirely—they’re a part of how we make sense of the world and having expectations about the future is a good thing.

They help us to do things like plan, be prepared and to dream and hope. But when we talk about giving up expectations, we need to think about what types of expectations we have—for ourselves, for others, and for God, and how those expectations are working in our lives.

Over the years, I’ve realized that I put a lot of energy into managing my expectations. For example, anytime I sit down to watch the Phillies, I tell myself right at the beginning that they’re going to lose, and probably going to do so in an embarrassing way. It keeps me from getting disappointed. And often, they manage to meet my very low expectations of them. In order to keep my expectations from getting dashed, I lower them in the first place. It’s not just with sports that I do this—and I imagine that I’m not the only one.

But often our expectations function as our pre-conceived notions of how the world works. Or ought to work. For example: we think that if we, if I, am good enough, smart enough, or make enough money, everything will turn out okay.

Or we have expectations about other people: that other people should be willing to do for me what I’m willing to do for them. This might be good in theory, but we all know it isn’t often reality. Or our expectations for God: that God will operate by our sense of right and wrong, that the people we find objectionable, God finds objectionable.

When we consider the Bible, expectations can be tricky to look at, because we’re not often given insight into what the characters are thinking and feeling. But, at least in the gospel reading today, we’re able to see the missteps and miscommunications that happen when two people approach a conversation with very different sets of expectations.

Nicodemus, a leader of the synagogue, comes to Jesus by night to find out more about him. Jesus and his disciples have come to Jerusalem at this point, early in John’s gospel, for the Passover festival, and those in authority, including Nicodemus, have taken notice of this traveling teacher and healer.

And so Nicodemus comes to have his questions answered. And that’s where things start to go awry. We don’t know what exactly Nicodemus is expecting from Jesus, whom he calls a teacher from God, but from the way the conversation goes, he certainly didn’t expect he was going to be told he needs to be born again from above.

Whatever his expectations, Nicodemus is incredulous at Jesus’ answer. “How can this be?” He asks. He knows that what Jesus is describing doesn’t make sense, and is incredibly skeptical, and as Jesus says, does not believe.

We often single Nicodemus out as being a little dense in his lack of understanding—even Jesus seems to do that—but I think instead he’s just the latest in a long line of people who were confused and skeptical when their expectations came face to face with God’s. People whose experiences led them to find God’s promises to be laughable at best.

Think of Sarah, her body old and beyond the age of childbirth—when she hears that she shall have a son, she laughs in disbelief. Even the story in our first reading, God’s call of Abram, goes against all our good expectations. Who shall God choose to be the patriarch of a great nation, of all of God’s people? No one would have expected that it would be a wandering Aramean, a no one from nowhere.

Or what of another woman of the Hebrew Bible—Naomi, her name changed to mean Bitter—too deeply acquainted with grief and loss to see how God’s future might come through Ruth a Moabite. She is an old woman now, with no husband and no sons. She tells her daughters-in-law to go back to their own families and find new lives. It’s impossible, nonsensical, that she and Ruth would have a future together. And yet that is exactly what happens—and it is through this unexpected pairing that God works great deeds.

No, Nicodemus is certainly not the first to find God’s actions upending his expectations of how things should work. But you know what—it’s a great thing that Nicodemus’ expectations are shattered. That Abraham and Sarah’s expectations of what is possible are put to rest.

When confronted with the unexpected wideness of God’s love and mercy, all of our expectations—of who’s in and who’s out, of who deserves what, of how this whole system works—are blown out of the water. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believed in him might not perish but have eternal life.”

It’s a lot for Nicodemus to take in, and no wonder. Living in such a grace and mercy filled mindset involves a rebirth in the Spirit—and that means giving up old ways of thinking about how God works. About what is possible and impossible. We don’t get the end of the story here; but later we find out that Jesus’ words have truly broken through to Nicodemus, when he shows up at Jesus’ burial, carrying spices for the body.

But this week, the question is put to us: what do we expect? From God, or from ourselves? Are you managing your expectations, like me and the Phillies, hoping not to be disappointed? If so, we’re selling ourselves and God short, because new life and hope can and do come in and surprise us.

God will, whether we’re ready or not, sometimes whether we want it or not, God will come and break through our expectations. Break through our expectations about who is in and who is out. Our expectations about who deserves what. God will use ordinary things—things like bread and wine—and ordinary people, just like you and me, to surprise us with grace. And it might not be what we’re expecting. But it could be just what we need.

There’s an old hymn by William Cowper, called, “Sometimes a light surprises.” Sometimes a light surprises. May we be willing to see past our own expectations, and be surprised by God’s light, mercy, and love. Amen.

Giving up Control

I’ve managed to get a little behind in posting my sermons, so this week there will be a few different posts. This first sermon was given on March 5, the First Sunday in Lent. Traditionally in our lectionary, the First Sunday in Lent focuses on Jesus in the Wilderness. This sermon is the first in a series, called “Giving it Up,” focusing on giving up control.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

If you’ve read the most recent issue of the Chimes, for March, you’ll already know that for the season of Lent, I’m going to be doing a sermon series, based on our readings, called “Giving it Up.” It’s a play on the idea that often times people choose to give something up for Lent. Sometimes it’s things we see as small temptations—chocolate, caffeine, alcohol.

This type of fasting practice can be helpful in keeping Lent, and in being drawn back to God. For this sermon series, though, we’re looking at different things that we might “give up.” Today, we’re going to think about giving up control.

In our readings, we have two different examples of how people deal with the temptation of control. The first is Adam and Eve, in the book of Genesis. They have, in fact, been given much control: they are granted dominion over all the earth—told to till the land and keep it. There is much power and responsibility there.

But even though they have control over almost all things—all except one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—the temptation of having just a little more control, just a little more power is too great for Adam and Eve. The serpent comes and sows seeds of doubt: that God does not truly trust them, that they are not as valued as they would believe.

They are not content with being the stewards of all the earth—instead, they want to be like God, and have total control and total knowledge. There sin is not their disobedience, but rather it is their decision that ultimately they, rather than God, are the ones in control.

On the other side of the coin, we have the story of Jesus being tempted in the desert. He is offered control, goaded into taking control for himself, he is offered all the power in the world. And yet, he does not take it.

This story of Jesus’ temptation is an odd one, because it’s not particularly easy to relate to. If I had to guess, I would say that almost all of us would have trouble imagining Satan offering us bread after a forty-day fast. I have trouble just imagining the forty-day fast part, myself. We do not know—at least I hope—the fear of being held over the ledge at the top of sky scraper. None of us sitting here has ever been offered all the power in the world.

But that’s not to say that we don’t understand temptation. We know temptation—the temptations of pride, of vanity. The temptations of selfishness and apathy. These are just as dangerous as Jesus’ temptations—maybe even more dangerous, because oftentimes, they do not come with the identifiable face of the devil.

Temptation is there for us in the moments when we look at what others have and feel insecure about not having enough. Temptation comes in the judgments we make about strangers, or even friends, who makes choices we don’t understand. Temptation is what makes us able to look away from those in need, and live our lives unaffected by poverty, hunger, or disease.

Temptation is when we allow the tempter to define our lives and define what matters for us, or when addiction to power, wealth, influence, or an inordinate need for control defines who we are, and takes control of the decisions we make. Temptation wins when we justify the little things to ourselves, the small sins: a racist or sexist joke that we do not call out, the criticism of a friend or spouse or partner behind their back. Temptation wins when we get so caught up in the trappings of life that we forget to live life itself.

Temptation is there. It doesn’t come, as Jesus’ did, with an identifiable villain with a name and a face. But it doesn’t make it less real for our lives. There’s a great line from the movie, The Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

I believe in the devil. Let me clarify that, because I don’t believe in a little red man with a forked tail. I don’t believe in demons or ghosts. But I do believe that there are real temptations in our lives, and they are much too easy to fall into.

It is different for each and every one of us, but whatever the temptation is for you—being the best at work, having it all, turning a blind eye to the needs of others, always being in control—temptations can come to be the things ruling our actions, instead of our own better judgment, the way it was for Adam and Eve.

Throughout the season of Lent, we talk about penitence, and that word often conjures up images of feeling sorry or guilty for the things we’ve done. But Lenten penitence is more than that. It engages these dark areas of our lives, these temptations, so that we may come face to face with them, recognize them, understand them, and seek forgiveness for them. It isn’t about guilt. Rather, it is about freedom from the control these fears and insecurities have over us.

The biggest visible difference between Adam and Eve and Jesus was their reactions to being offered control. Adam and Eve grasped for it, but Jesus refused it. Beneath the surface though, the biggest difference was one of identity.

Adam and Eve had been given an identity—as God’s good creatures, as stewards of the earth. They forgot it. Jesus, just before his temptation, had been baptized by John in the Jordan and declared God’s beloved Son. And that identity was not something that the devil could control.

And that identity is not something we can control either. If we frequently talk about Lenten penitence, we must also acknowledge that the Lenten journey is a baptismal journey. It is a time of reconnecting with what grounds us in our identity in Christ. We too, are declared by God to be beloved children.

Temptations come, like the serpent in the garden and the devil in the wilderness, and invite us to forget, even for just a moment, whose we are—who we belong to. But we know whose we are—we are God’s. You are God’s beloved child. Do not let anyone, or anything tell you otherwise. Amen.