[Simmering sermon] I once was blind, but now I'm blinded

In some of the old hymnals, there's a song called "Stepping in the Light" (I've always found the title humorous and have joked, "Well, if I'm going to step in something I'd rather step in light"). My congregation's most senior members love to sing it at our weekly potluck luncheon. Here's the chorus:

How beautiful to walk in the steps of the Savior,
Stepping in the light, stepping in the light,
How beautiful to walk in the steps of the Savior,
Led in paths of light.

It has a very light and peppy feel, and I visualize skipping or dancing, something like what Dorothy and friends did as they sang "Follow the Yellow Brick Road."

It's interesting: there are lots of songs and hymns that have as their context a "before and after" picture of finding faith in Christ. Hank Williams' song "I Saw the Light" proclaims, "Now I'm so happy, no sorrow in sight; praise the Lord, I saw the light." Of course, there is the most well-known of all, "Amazing Grace." "I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see." 

The interesting thing about this is that whenever the biblical narrative describes human encounters with God—i.e., seeing the light—it actually often results not in happiness or tranquility but in "fear and trembling." Moses' encounter with God found him being asked to do something he didn't want to do (Exodus 4:13). Isaiah's encounter left him crying out, "Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips..." (Isaiah 6:5). The tax collector in Jesus' parable beat his breast and pleaded for mercy when he found his way to prayer (Luke 18:13). Paul's encounter made him totally lose his appetite and left him blinded for a time (Acts 9:9). I thought blindness was the "before" condition?

What happens when we come into God's light, find God's salvation, and open ourselves to God's Spirit? Spiritually speaking, what if it's not so much going from blindness to sight but from unknown blindness to known blindness?

The New Testament lectionary texts for this week include some familiar passages: "For it is by grace you have been saved..." (Ephesians 2:8), and, "For God so loved the world..." (John 3:16). As is usually the case, the most well-known passages are often the most misinterpreted.

For example, the Ephesians passage says that grace is the prerequisite of salvation, and faith is the conduit. Most evangelical preaching gets that backwards.

John 3:16, too, is far too often preached without reference to context. It should be at least notable that the most oft-used verse today for preaching to those outside religious circles was originally spoken to someone very much IN religious circles (Nicodemus). But besides that, the encounter has many other fascinating yet unexplored themes. The lectionary designates 3:14-21, which includes a mention of John's characteristic theme of light. 
This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:19-21)
Behind Each Hope, Lies a Doubt from Flickr via Wylio
© 2009 Cristian V., Flickr | CC-BY-ND
Here, light is credited with doing what light does best: helping us see. It shows us what we may not see without it. In cases where there are undesirable things present, it "exposes." I'm reminded of a meme I once saw circulating around Facebook: "Those who turn on the light can't be blamed for the mess it exposes."

This is particularly powerful when paired with the imagery of rebirth earlier in the John 3 conversation. Jesus tells Nicodemus, "You must be born again" (John 3:7). I don't think we take this metaphor seriously enough. Think about the condition of a newborn or very young child. Helpless. Unlearned. Trying to move without help. Experimenting with many unfamiliar things. Fascinated with the new.

Yet, some of the most self-assured, authoritative, I-know-the-answers people I have known are those who have adopted the identity of a born-again Christian.

All the imagery in John—birth and light—is describing quite a different experience. Finding God is an experience of being "exposed," of having to lay bare all that which we would prefer to keep hidden. We are "seen plainly" in God's light, and none of us measure up. Coming to faith in Christ is supposed to be an experience of learning to see the world as God sees it—in God's light—and it looks so different from that viewpoint that it's as if we're having to learn how to walk and talk all over again. With our own prejudices and expectations stripped away, we fumble at best. The problem is that, too often, Christianity is presented as merely a confessional belief system instead of a beautiful yet traumatic reordering of our life. As it did with Nicodemus, it should leave us saying, "How can this be?" (John 3:9)

As I considered in a post several years ago, we take too much credit. Am I reduced to humility when I think I have a special revelation from God, or do I flaunt it and revel in new-found self-vindication? We don't see light; light allows us to see.1 We don't know God; God allows us to know.

Later in John's gospel, Jesus heals a blind man. When he is questioned about Jesus, he famously says, "Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” Able to see he was, but imagine the journey he had ahead of him. He had been born blind. So everything he had ever heard of—every object, every person, every place—had looked a certain way in his mind's eye, but upon "seeing the light," he would have begun the long, arduous journey of having to recontextualize everything.

A journey that surely requires much patience, humility, and stumbling around. 

1 I'll give credit to Peter Rollins for this quote. I first heard it from him, but I don't think it's original to him.


[Simmering sermon] "Only A Fool"

On their 1997 album "Threads," Geoff Moore and the Distance have a song called "Only a Fool." It tells two parabolic stories: one of a man who quit a well-paying and upwardly mobile job to work with disadvantaged kids, and another of a beauty queen who could have made a career with her looks and charisma but gave it up in similar fashion. They are both described as "taking the job only a fool could do."

The last chorus says:

Show me the big in the small
Show me the wonder of my call
Even when no one else approves
I'll take the job for only a fool

This song came to mind as I read the epistle reading for this coming Sunday. From Paul's first letter to the Corinthians: 
"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God...Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe...For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength." (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)
Does this world need more fools, or less? It depends on what you're talking about.

Such passages are sometimes used to justify a false narrative of persecution or to shield any belief or action from critique. Similar to the passage in which Jesus warns his followers that they may be hated for preaching his message (Luke 6:22), Paul warns that those who promote the gospel may be considered foolish. But neither of these passages should be used to justify anything that is called foolish or engenders hatred. We have to get it in the right order. The passages teach that those who faithfully follow Christ may be hated or considered foolish, not that anytime you are hated or considered foolish, you are following Christ.

An extreme or all-too-easy example is the Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, who quite often feel vindicated in their preaching of hate because of such biblical passages. But perhaps harder to see is the way in which the "fools to the world" narrative is used to justify Christian endeavors that are quite the opposite of the self-sacrificial, "losing your life" calling of Jesus. Christians have been known to use political power and money to fight culture wars, secure a place of privilege for their worldview, and disenfranchise those to whom they object. The ensuing criticism is expected and thus used for self-vindication. This is not what we're talking about. The prophetic tradition of the Bible has harsh words for those who forget which side of privilege and the power structure they're on.

Foolishness for the gospel is not self-aggrandizing or power-seeking. Foolishness for the gospel was seen in Mother Theresa, who begged and pleaded to go to a despised and forsaken place to minister on the streets and be a "saint of darkness." Foolishness for the gospel was seen in Saint Francis of Assisi who abandoned a life of luxury to take the message of Christ to ordinary people forgotten by the very rich and powerful church of his day. Foolishness for the gospel is seen in Redeemer Lutheran Church of Minneapolis who decided to stay in a struggling neighborhood when other churches had moved out to the suburbs. Foolishness for the gospel is seen in Northern Lighthouse Ministries on the edge of Lincoln, NE, a congregation that intentionally welcomes (actually, goes and gets) prisoners, ex-prisoners, and the homeless into their worship and ministry.1 Foolishness for the gospel was seen in Kayla Mueller, the American humanitarian worker in Syria who was killed by ISIS. We've learned through her letters that she had a deep faith in Christ and that her love of God and neighbor had taken her to this dangerous place to serve.

Foolishness for the gospel is relinquishing self-preservation (or even church preservation?) to be a part of God's bigger story. It is giving up whatever obstacle there may be within us to extending God's love, grace, and forgiveness to the other...particularly those from whom rationality might tell us to steer clear.

1 Credit to Elizabeth Turman-Bryant whose work on "radically hospitable churches" introduced me to this ministry.