Sunday, March 26, 2017

Do You See It?

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
A Lent 4 – 26 March 2017
Text: John 9:1-41
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas

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One lesson that I have struggled with over the past several years is how much our life circumstances influence our perspective or how we see things. What do I mean by this…?

I mean that – even as adults - the circumstances into which we have been born influence our perspective, as do our circumstances growing up as children. Someone born into a poor family has a different perspective than someone born into a rich family. Someone who grew up on a farm has a different perspective than someone who grew up in a city. Our different races, cultures, religious expressions, languages, physical abilities, generations – all of these, and more, shape each of us to see the world in certain ways, and to experience the world in certain ways.

Notice, please, that I’m not placing a value judgment on any one perspective or life experience over another.

To today’s gospel story – the man born blind has had a different life than those around him. He’s been blind for all his life, so for all his life, he’s had to learn how to live in a world full of sighted people.

Not only that, but he’s had to deal with the common assumption at the time which said that he (or his parents) must’ve sinned in some way for him to be born blind. So, not only is he dealing with a physical reality – his own blindness – but he’s dealing with the people around him assuming that he’s done something wrong to bring this upon himself.

Even Jesus’ own disciples ask Jesus whose sin caused this condition. So this was common thinking at the time. And Jesus tries to change their perspective – “No, no, no. That’s not it at all. His blindness gives us the chance to see God at work, first hand! Look!”
Then Jesus smears mud on the blind man’s face, and tells him to go wash, which he does. And for the first time in his life, the man born blind can see.

Then enter into our story a group with yet another perspective: the Pharisees. Their perspective is one that focuses on the Laws of God. That’s why they’re all wound up about Jesus healing someone on the Sabbath. In their perspective, Jesus is a sinner because he has done this deed on the day which is set apart for resting.

So they question the man and then go to his parents (as if he can’t answer for himself), and the parents don’t really want to deal with their questions, so they send the Pharisees back to their son.

The Pharisees are trying to pin their idea of sin onto Jesus. And the man born blind has the perfect response: “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now…I see.”

This man who has been blind not only has his physical blindness removed, but he begins, too, to see Jesus – not only as the one who has healed him, but as the One sent by God – the One for whom they have been waiting. His experience of his physical world has been completely changed – he has a new perspective – and his experience of God has changed, too, because here is God-in-the-flesh, rubbing mud in his eyes, and taking away his blindness.

This change in perspective is what Paul is writing about in today’s epistle lesson, too. “Once you were darkness,” Paul says, “But now in the Lord you are light. [So…] Live as children of the light!” Our lives in Christ should change our whole perspective – our whole vision - so that we see our lives as God sees them.

Think about how much our perspective changes just from flipping on a light switch in a dark room. It is one thing to stumble around in the darkness, tripping over furniture or dogs or rugs on the floor. But – we have the light! Why stumble around? Just turn on the light!

Recently, I’ve had several people in my life who have lost loved ones. And in each case, yes, there has, of course, been sadness and grief. But mixed in with that grief has been the perspective that we have as Christians: that God is present, even in someone’s death – and that God gives comfort and peace to those who are still living.

It reminds me of a letter that my dad wrote to family and friends after he had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Throughout the letter, he sought to explain what was happening medically, and then he ended on a note of where he was spiritually, referring to Philippians 4:7 – that, even in the midst of his illness, he had been given the peace that surpasses all understanding.

Our lives are caught up in Christ. Our lives are caught up in the love of God. Do you see it?

“Once you were darkness,” Paul says, “But now in the Lord you are light. [So…] Live as children of the light!” Our lives in Christ should change our whole perspective – our whole vision - so that we see not only our own lives, but we also see the world as God sees it.

I’ll say again – for the third time this Lent – remember: “God so loved the world…”? That is God’s vision: God’s love for the world. Do you see it?

I close today with this Celtic prayer, and I invite you again to close your eyes as I pray:

God to enfold me,
God to surround me,
God in my speaking,
God in my thinking.

God in my sleeping,
God in my waking,
God in my watching,
God in my hoping.

God in my life,
God in my lips,
God in my soul,
God in my heart.

God in my sufficing,
God in my slumber,
God in mine ever-living soul,
God in mine eternity.


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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Everyone is Somebody to God

Lent 3 – 19 March 2017
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas

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I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?

So asked the poet Emily Dickinson, musing about the difference between being a Nobody and being a Somebody. The world is full of Nobodies and Somebodies, it seems, and in this world, the woman at the well who meets Jesus is a Nobody. We don’t even get to know her name!

At the time of Jesus, this woman – as a woman - would’ve had no real power over her life – certainly not over her marital situation. She didn’t have any control over being born a Samaritan, either, and that she was a Samaritan made her even more of a Nobody. Samaritans didn’t follow the True Religion – which made them automatically suspect – so, on the basis of religion, she was a Nobody, too.

So, there is Jesus, traveling along through Samaria, and he decides to take a rest by Jacob’s well. This Nobody woman comes along, and Jesus asks her to draw up some water for him to drink. The fact that Jesus even speaks to her is tremendous. To us, it is no big deal. He’s thirsty – why not ask for a drink from the person who has the bucket? But in speaking to this woman – especially in speaking to her alone – Jesus is crossing gender, ethnic, and religious boundaries.

But Jesus doesn’t stop with asking for water. They begin conversing, this Jewish teacher and this Samaritan Nobody – all about springs of water gushing up to eternal life, and about her marital history, and in all this, she begins – slowly, at first – to see the truth about Jesus. She realizes finally that she is speaking with the Messiah, the One promised by God.

This is when the story is getting good!

But then the disciples come back, and the text tells us that they are astonished to see Jesus speaking with a woman. But they don’t say anything to the woman or to Jesus, and the woman does just as these men have done when they became disciples of Jesus – she leaves what she has (her bucket of water). As one of my seminary professors wrote in her commentary about the book of John: “The woman doesn’t get a husband, but instead gets a new job.”[1] She runs to the city and begins to tell people all about Jesus.

And then the text gives us a gift – especially for those of us who’ve had our ministry questioned because of our gender or ethnicity. The text gives us a gift by saying: “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.”

Because of her testimony, many Samaritans come to believe in Jesus. And in the Gospel of John, belief isn’t just a head thing or even just a heart thing – belief is a relationship thing. To say that the Samaritans believed in Jesus has more of the sense that they began their relationship with him as his disciples. Because of her testimony, Jesus stays with them for a couple of days – which shows this relationship that is developing between Jesus and this group of Nobodies.

Our story today wraps up with the Samaritans declaring, “We know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

And they could’ve added – “The savior of the whole world, even us, the ones who’re called ‘Nobodies.’”

This story, then, is a living-out of what Jesus has just proclaimed in John 3: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” This story also humanizes a group of people who were largely despised in the First Century: the Samaritans. It humanizes them by showing Jesus’ willingness to talk with them, listen to them, spend time with them, be in relationship with them – in the flesh.

And God uses the testimony of the woman at the well to do all this work.

There are times in my life when I’ve received the word of God from a surprising source – maybe words of forgiveness spoken by someone I’ve hurt, or words of assurance spoken at a time when I was faltering, or words of peace spoken into a time of conflict, or words of truth spoken in the midst of lies. At other times, even before I was a pastor, I was the one whom God used to speak those surprising words to someone else – words of forgiveness, or assurance, or peace, or truth.

Just imagine that to which God may be calling you. Now, maybe going out and talking about Jesus willy-nilly to strangers isn’t your gift. But you can show yourself to be a person of faith, and as a person of faith, you can bear witness to Jesus through your words and actions. As a person of faith, you can be the one to offer surprising words of forgiveness, or assurance, or peace, or truth. As a person of faith, each one of us has something we can share or show about God’s love. There are no Nobodies – not one.

God’s vision is so much bigger than our own vision, and God’s love is bigger than our own love. “God so loved the world…” even those whom the world calls “Nobodies,” for everyone is Somebody to God.[2]

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[1] The Very Rev. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of John. Published by Morehouse Publishing, p. 62.
[2] The “Nobody”/”Somebody” language came from Deborah J. Kapp’s essay for this Sunday in Feasting on the Word, Kindle Location 20029.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Beloved People of God

Lent 1, Year A – 5 March 2017

Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas

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And thus begins the season of Lent!

Every year, we begin Lent with the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness. It is, therefore, tempting for us to distill this story down to a very simple meaning: that Jesus is tempted in the wilderness as we are during the season of Lent, and he resisted his temptations, and so we should, too.

But this story is about much more than Jesus being tempted in the wilderness by the devil. At its heart, this story is about Jesus and his identity as the Son of God. Making this story only about the temptations that Jesus faces is an over-simplification of what is really happening in this story.

In the chapter before this one – so, in Matthew 3 – Jesus is baptized in the Jordan by John.  He comes up out of his baptismal waters, and the heavens open, and God’s voice from heaven proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Cut to the next scene, and Jesus is led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. So these heavenly words are still ringing in his ears as he goes out to the wilderness to be tempted. In the Bible, the wilderness is often a place of struggle, so notice how the devil begins his temptations, by going to the very core of Jesus’ identity: “If you are the Son of God…” the devil begins.

Now, I don’t know about you, but in my mind’s eye, whenever I’ve pictured this story, I’ve always pictured Jesus, in his weakened state – weakened by his fasting – softly pushing back the devil with his answers.

But this year, reading this story again, I realize that Jesus actually speaks from a place of tremendous strength and surety. He is certain of his identity as the Son of God, and so he leaves no room for the devil to work. He is certain of his identity as the Son of God, and so he – from a place of strength – is able, finally, to tell the devil to get lost. As commentator and seminary president David Lose says, Jesus is fully aware of who he is, and whose he is.

One of the more popular stories about the reformer Martin Luther is about his time at Wartburg Castle. Luther had just stood up to the church authorities in protest, refusing to recant his writings (which had been declared heresy by those authorities). He became a fugitive, kept safe by Prince Frederick III, who had him whisked away to Wartburg Castle.

During this time of isolation, Luther got to work. He translated the New Testament from Greek into German at a time when finding the Bible in the vernacular language was impossible. He cranked out more and more writing about Scripture and reforms needed in the Church. As the story goes, one night, the devil woke him up, and Luther took an inkwell and hurtled it square at the devil’s head.

Even this old tombstone reminds us whose we are.
Martin Luther also knew with certainty who he was and whose he was.

Every Sunday and every Wednesday, I lift up the bread and wine during the invitation to Communion and I look at you and I say, “These are the gifts of God for you, who are the beloved people of God.” I don’t say these words merely as a point of transition during the liturgy. I say these words each week to you – and to myself –as a constant reminder of who we are and whose we are.

For we live in a wilderness – a place of struggle. We are tempted every day – maybe not to turn stones into bread – but we are tempted to believe lies about ourselves. For instance, think about advertising and how it is, by its very nature, designed to make us feel inadequate if we don’t have the latest phone or the fanciest car. Or think about society’s lies that we are inferior to someone else – or less loved by God - because of our skin color, or gender, or sexual orientation, or (most recently) our political beliefs.

Pretty soon, we find ourselves tempted to believe lies not only about ourselves, but about others, too. And if we are willing to believe lies about others, it becomes more difficult to love them as we love ourselves. Then, we can ignore their human need – and ignore their humanity, even.

These lies about ourselves and about others – they are a slippery slope.

Remembering who we are and whose we are helps us escape that slippery slope. My favorite New Testament book, Romans, reminds us in chapter 5 that while we were sinners, Christ died for us. And then in chapter 6, Paul goes on to say that in our baptisms, we are buried with Christ in his death and we are raised with Christ in his resurrection. We have Christ – we have the life of Christ – and that is more than enough. If we are certain of this – if we are certain that we are the beloved people of God – then we, too, can tell the devil - and all those lies - to get lost.

Consider these words, written by Pope Francis in his message for Lent this year:

“Dear friends, Lent is the favorable season for renewing our encounter with Christ, living in his word, in the sacraments and in our neighbor. The Lord, who overcame the deceptions of the Tempter during the forty days in the desert, shows us the path we must take. May the Holy Spirit lead us on a true journey of conversion, so that we can rediscover the gift of God’s word, be purified of the sin that blinds us, and serve Christ present in our brothers and sisters in need…Let us pray for one another so that, by sharing in the victory of Christ, we may open our doors to the weak and poor. Then we will be able to experience and share to the full the joy of Easter.”

In remembering who we are and whose we are, let us all renew our encounters with Christ this Lent, so that we can better follow Christ as his disciples.


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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Dust in the Hands of a Loving God

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
Ash Wednesday – 1 March 2017
Text: 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas

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Our New Testament lesson today recognizes a very important reality for people of faith: it recognizes that we live in a world that is filled with difficulties. In this lesson, Paul lists off what he’s had to endure: afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger. He’s been dishonored, treated as an imposter, and practically dead. He’s been through some things.

Ash Wednesday recognizes some important realities for people of faith, too: it reminds us that we are dust and will return to dust – an important reminder of our humanity. But the ashes that we receive are not merely left in a heap upon our heads, the ashes are placed in the shape of a cross – as a reminder that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. And Christ died for us because of God’s great love for us.

There are several circumstances in my ministry in which I place crosses on people’s foreheads. The first is when I baptize someone – after the water has been poured over them, I mark them with the cross of Christ. I also mark a cross on the foreheads of people during times of prayer or when we are asking God’s blessing upon someone. I’ve marked crosses on the foreheads of people near death. And each year, on Ash Wednesday, I mark crosses of ash on your foreheads, and I say the ancient words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Remember that you are dust. 

It can be difficult to think about this – to remember that we are dust. In our New Testament lesson today, Paul says that we possess everything, which seems to stand in contrast to remembering that we are dust. Dust seems so impermanent – you blow on it, and it scatters.

But the sign of the cross reminds us again and again that, even though we are dust, we do have everything, because we have Christ. It’s almost as if God takes all of us who are dust, collects us together, and shapes us into a new creation through Christ. We may be dust, but we are dust in the hands of a loving God.

Remember that you are dust – dust in the hands of a loving God, who will never let you go.

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