You Cannot Save Yourself – Sermon on Ephesians 2.1-10

Ephesians 2.1-10

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

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Our series on “Back to the Basics” continues this morning by looking at the topic of salvation. We started this series in light of the fact that many of us are deeply rooted in our faith, but some of the basics have perhaps become so routined that we no longer understand what they mean. We began with a call to return to the basics, then we looked at the Ten Commandments and today we are talking about salvation. Here we go.

My friend Josh loved the Christian camp. Every summer he looked forward to returning to the familiar space with young people all growing in their faith. From tubing on the lake, to hiking around the compound, and even just praying at night with his friends, the camp was a place unlike any other; at camp he could be fully Christian without the world judging him for his discipleship.

By the time I met Josh, camp was long in the past though he remembered most of it fondly. Having never gone to a specifically Christian camp I was fascinated by the idea of being immersed in an intentional faith community with other young people and I regularly asked him questions about his experiences. After all, it was at camp where he met his future wife, and it was years later that he made a scavenger hunt at the camp in order to propose.

As a young Christian my faith was largely formed and nurtured by my home church. I was blessed to grow up around a number of people who took their commitment to raising me in the faith seriously. Josh, however, learned a lot about what it meant to be Christian from the counselors at camp, which, like many things, can be a blessing and a curse.

The young adult counselors embodied how you could still be cool and Christian. They made faith so appealing because they regularly demonstrated what God had done for them in their lives. They made efforts to make faith approachable and were able to share the love of God with campers every summer.

Yet, some of them deeply believed it was their chief responsibility to save others and did whatever they could to make that happen.

It would come at the end of an incredible week of building new relationships and ideas when one of the counselors who begin talking about the Roman Road and I imagine it went something like this:

“Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior? Your life might feel pretty good right now, you might have a kind family and some nice friends, but what about your eternal life? Do you want to spend life after death burning in the fires of hell? Or do you want to be saved?

“Imagine that you are standing on the edge of a cliff. Being a good person isn’t enough to save you. You can see salvation on the other side of the divide, but the only way you can get there is through Jesus Christ. Try to picture the cross being a bridge for you to safely get to the other side. You have the power to decide your everlasting fate. What’s it going to be?”

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When Josh explained these experiences to me I could sense the amount of manipulation that went into the dialogues. As the summers passed at camp, the conversations remained the same only the stakes became higher: What are you doing to save the people around you? Have you explained the Roman Road to your friends?

My friends, we are now alive though we were dead. Until the great gift of God in Jesus Christ we existed like lifeless bodies wandering around. Part of this came to be because we were guilty of sinfulness though we were also victims of our environment – people and organizations who told us we can save ourselves. But God, rich in mercy, saved us.

In the early church they did not spend their time going around trying to convince people with the Roman Road argument. They did not waste time going through the in and outs of theological proofs of Christ’s divinity and resurrection. Instead the church pointed at itself to prove the miracle. Want to know about death, the cross, and the resurrection? Here they are.

The budding Christian community grew not because it’s leaders were particularly articulate in their ability to save others through words, but because they believed in the Lordship of Jesus Christ. With the new family that was created in community they experienced a new kind of life with God at the core, a new opportunity that came with the Spirit.

While the early disciples went throughout their surrounding regions, their cries of evangelism did not begin with “Save yourselves!” Instead they, like Ephesians, triumphantly declared, “God saved you, come live your new life!

If we are anything we are a people of resurrection. Not a country club of like-minded individuals, not a political organization, not a club of devoted fans, but a people of resurrection.

Since the time of Christ, those who followed him have found new life, resurrected life, with God. New life has come by many ways – repenting for the wrongs of our lives, being forgiven by God and our friends, experiencing an assurance of the eternal dimension of God’s love and care, and by a number of other life events, even hearing about the Roman Road from camp counselors. However, we must be careful when putting too much emphasis on our power in salvation. Yes, God has opened the door and we must be the ones to walk through it, but the greater act came in the opening of the door and not our power to go through it.

Resurrected life is something that will come when Jesus returns but we can also experience it here and now. Whenever I’m asked about miracles I can quickly describe some of the incredible things I have witnessed, events I attribute to God’s grace. But some of the most powerful miracles, to me, are right here in our midst. I can look out from this pulpit and see people’s lives who have been turned around through Christ’s love. I see and remember stories about things that have happened to you, sinful desires that suffocated your ability to live fully, when God offered you a new resurrected life.

I heard someone once describe their days as lifeless. They went through the familiar motions but it all felt repetitious, pointless, and directionless. This went on and on until someone invited them to a church community. Suddenly people began to care about him without knowing anything about him or his past. It was like he was being seen and treated through God’s perspective. Through a simple invitation and a new opportunity he felt resurrected from the dead, and began living again. 

Salvation is not about receiving a perfect grade that allows us to make the cut into God’s heavenly kingdom. Who among us fulfills all of the laws from the Old and New Testaments? Loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, giving away our possessions? Even the greatest commandment to love God and neighbor with our hearts, souls, minds, and strengths is incredibly difficult.

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If salvation was about getting the right grade, I’m sad to say that most of us would be failing. It’s as if the closer we get to visions of God’s glory, the more we realize our unholiness.

We pray to God before our meals and while we look out on the feast before us we are reminded of the many who have no food to eat. We kneel in a makeshift structure in Guatemala being served food by people who have nothing in terms of our materiality but have faith that we could never imagine. We sit on the stoops of a front porch in West Virginia after painting all day and we realize we could be doing so much more.

We were dead through the sins of our lives and we have been victims of our environment. The good news amidst this unholiness is that, by the grace of God, we have been saved. That through God’s incredible act of selflessness, our sinfulness has been forgiven.

Not a forgiveness as a nice plus added to a grade for our performance as Christians, but forgiveness as a completely unearned gift – a gift extended to a prodigal son who squandered his inheritance, a gift extended to a tax collector who only cared about himself, a gift extended to a thief who hung on a cross to die, a gift extended to you, or to me.

By grace we have been saved. 

Grace is like friendship. Josh, the one who shared with me his experiences of Christian camp, is my best friend and was the best man at my wedding. I did nothing to earn his friendship.  If it had been initiated over an exchange of goods (I will be your friend if you do this for me) it would never have become the true friendship that it is today. Friendship, and I mean true friendship, is an act of faith. Learning to trust the other knowing that they could hurt you.

I know that Josh will be there for me at a moment’s notice. He will listen to me and do whatever he can to help. I also know that he doesn’t expect anything in return. That is the meaning of true friendship; a willingness to give because the well-being of someone else matters more to you than your own. My friendship with Josh is an act of faith, but one that I am remarkably thankful for.

Salvation, for us, is the beginning of a covenant of friendship between us and God; between the divine and a sinner. Grace is another way of describing an incredible love story between God and his creation.

We cannot save ourselves. We cannot save other people. No matter what the commercials, advertisements, and camp counselors tell us. Only the Lord has the power to save. Thanks be to God that he came in the form of flesh in Jesus Christ to open up the gates of heaven to people like us.Thanks be to God that we are not called to save others, but merely help them to see what God has already done, and continues to do, in their lives.

We were dead but have been made alive through the greatest gift ever given. The question for us, then, should not be, “Am I saved?” Instead we should be asking, “What am I doing with this resurrected life?

Amen.

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Devotional – Psalm 107.1

Devotional:

Psalm 107.1

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever. 

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“I’m post-racial” he said. “I am color blind to racial differences and I have no prejudices.” At the time we were discussing racial inequality in Durham, North Carolina (a still very pertinent topic) and the man claimed that if more people could see the world the way he did, everything would be fixed. He proudly claimed his lack of prejudice for anyone with ears to hear but I had a hard time taking him seriously. I did not know him well enough to begin arguing against his so called “prejudice free lifestyle” so I decided to let him him wax lyrical about himself. However, while he continued to go on and on, a friend muttered next to me under his breath, “Show me someone without prejudice, and I’ll show you a liar.”

One of the hardest tasks of following Jesus Christ is to try to live without prejudices precisely because many of us aren’t aware of how deeply rooted our prejudices are. We may think that we are “color blind” or that we relate to people who are different from us in religion, sexual orientation, or political persuasions, but in many circumstances our involuntary thoughts, uncensored words, and knee-jerk reactions often demonstrate that our prejudices are still there.

If we’re driving in our cars and we see two women holding hands walking down the side-walk, what are our first thoughts? If we are at a restaurant and we witness a black woman and a white man kissing one another across the table, how do we immediately respond? If we’re flipping through news channels and come across a political campaign of a different perspective, how do we initially react?

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Strangers, anyone who is unlike us, stir up fear and discomfort. They break down our sense of security and well being by simply being “different.” We can puff ourselves up all we want with claims of living with a post-whatever lifestyle, but most of us, if we’re honest, are prejudice in ways big and small, seen and unseen.

As Christians, we give thanks to the Lord for he is good. Only when we learn to fully believe that God loves each of us unconditionally and see others as equally loved can we begin to behave according to God’s goodness. The great variety in the world is a sign of God’s immense wonder and beauty. Living with a non-judgmental frame of mind is exceptionally difficult, but it is worth working toward.

This week, while we continue to journey through the season of Lent, let us admit our own prejudices. When we have those knee-jerk reactions toward those who are different from us, let us immediately go to the Lord in prayer and ask for Him to create in us clean hearts so that we might become people of love rather than prejudice.

God’s Top 10 – Sermon on Exodus 20.1-17

Exodus 20.1-17

Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or what is on the earth  beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six says shall you labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male of female slave, your livestock, or the alien residents in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath and consecrated it. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

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As a kid, I always preferred worship to Sunday School. Sunday School meant we had to wake up earlier in order to make it on time, it rushed us as a family to get things ready, and the classrooms were filled with all of those strangely adult renditions of biblical stories. The lesson might’ve been on David fighting Goliath, but all I could ever remember was how buff and old David appeared in the pictures rather than the young and innocent version from the story. The lesson might have been focused on the importance of sacrifice, but the imagery of Abraham preparing to kill his son left most of us utterly terrified of God, rather than ready to give our lives to him. The lesson might have been about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but the story fell a little flat when our teacher kept calling Mary a “lady of the night” which made her sound more like a vampire than a prostitute.

On the other side, worship was awesome. I loved sitting near the front and watching all sorts of different people come together for this one thing. It amazed me that old men and women would take the time to talk to me and ask me questions about my life. Oh the joy that I remember experiencing when I was invited to the front for the children’s message; we were the special ones, all the adults had to sit in their pews but we, the kids, got to go all the way to the front and get closer to God.

My adolescent faith and love for church was like a roller-coaster. I looked forward to the hymns, the bread and cup, the communal act of praying together, but I dreaded the Sunday School classroom, the 25 year old cut-out flannel-graphs, and the seemingly endless amount of Old Testament arts and crafts.

But, if I’m honest, the thing that really drove me crazy about Sunday School was the fact that it felt way too much like regular school. We had a teacher who took attendance, put us in assigned seats, gave out homework, and even proctored pop-quizzes. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is an importance to the education that comes in Sunday School, but the way that it was done for me resulted in my desire to read the bible not for its knowledge, but for the promise of receiving a piece of candy if, for instance, I was the first person who could turn to the book of Isaiah.

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I could go on and on about the things I experienced in those Sunday School classrooms, but the one that stands out the most was the day we were quizzed on the 10 Commandments. At the time I knew they were a thing, but I certainly had no idea what they were. Up to that point in my life I could not remember ever hearing them preached about in church, I had no idea where they were in the bible, but I knew you could find them in framed cross-stitch patterns at older people’s homes.

My sheet of paper remained blank for a long time. However, the teacher took pity on me and tried to help encourage some answers: “What are the ten things God wants us to do?” My mind raced through different sermons and scriptures; I tried to remember what the pastor always said about God… I think God wants us to love Him, I’m pretty sure we are supposed to do unto others as we would have them do unto us… What else? God calls us to lift up our crosses. Oh, and God wants us to give Him our money!

I don’t remember what I eventually wrote down for the quiz, but I do remember that I failed, and I did not receive a piece of candy.

Can you recite the Ten Commandments from memory? What do you imagine when you hear about the Ten Commandments? Do you think about how the law was established to protect and bind us together? Or do you just picture Charlton Heston from the movie version of the Ten Commandments?

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Sadly, in our modern world we are more likely to hear about the Ten Commandments as they relate to controversies surrounding public displays than how they were written to help shape, guide, and mold our lives. Even as a child I was implicitly taught that it was more important to memorize God’s Top 10, than it was to understand them, and live accordingly.

The beginning of the commandments sets up an individual address, but the concern is not just about our private lives and welfare. The focus and thrust of the list is on protecting the health of the community in which the individual plays a pivotal role.

God graciously provided these guidelines as a way to open up our lives rather than limit them. It might not appear that way at first, but upon closer inspection they describe the outer limits of conduct rather than focusing on countless specific behaviors for every situation. At the foundation of the Ten Commandments is God’s desire for us to be protected from behaviors that have the potential to destroy.

In addition, the Ten Commandments are not a once-and-for-all declaration about the limitations of the Law. Throughout the history of Israel and the New Testament, faithful people struggled with these guidelines and amended them to be as fruitful as possible. This gives the people of God, in every age, the right and warrant to expand upon the laws.

If we can begin to see and imagine the commands as opportunities for fruitful living and malleable for our time, then they will no longer remain the stagnant list from our Sunday School memories.

I am the Lord your God, and you shall have other gods before me. You shall not create idols, nor shall your worship them

In our lives there are countless other gods fighting for our allegiances. From political parties to celebrities to businesses, it is next to impossible to be in the world without outside influences calling for us to worship them. When we find ourselves bowing to the powers in life, we neglect to honor the first two commandments. Honoring them encourages us to keep perspective about who is really in charge and the kinds of things that should be important in our lives. If we continue to worship what the media tells us, we will forget our call to love our enemies. If we spend more time catching up on all our favorite television programs, we will no longer catch up on what God is doing in our lives.

You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain

This is less about using curse words than it is about not claiming that we are doing something in the “name of the Lord” when we are really doing it in the name of ourselves. Perhaps some of us give time to serve the poor and homeless in Staunton, but if we do it to feel good about ourselves than we are taking the Lord’s name in vain. This command pushes us to commend and praise God for all the blessing of our lives, particularly when we can bless others.

Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy

Honoring the sabbath allows us to be our fullest. God rested on the sabbath, and we need rest in our lives. If we spend our days rushing through the familiar patterns of life, if we work without rest, then we will no longer be living. Or, as Ferris Bueller puts it, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Enjoying life and resting was not some external thing handed down for us to abide by, but a way in which we can be the truest form that God hopes for.

Honor your mother and father

Having parents is a gift. More and more children grow up without the vitally important guidance of parents and have to learn to live according to the tests and trials that are thrown at them. Our parents, whether biological or situational, made the choice to love us in spite of us. They gave and provided when we could not do so for ourselves. Loving our parents encourages us to be people of gratitude, instead of imagining that we are the source of all good things in our lives.

You shall not murder

Instead we should protect the innocence of life. We are called to value every single life whether belonging to someone famous, or someone nearly invisible in Staunton living on the streets. Every life has value, and God wants us to cherish the beauty in all people.

You shall not commit adultery

Instead we should love and embrace our commitments. When we covenant to be in relationship with those whom we love, we are asking for God (and others) to hold us accountable to that promise. Fighting against the temptations of adultery results in us valuing the needs and wants of the other, more than ourselves.

You shall not steal

No one should have to steal to live in our world. Instead of stealing we are called to give with glad and generous hearts. Whether through the offering in church, or to any charitable organizations, when we give we help to prevent the need for people to steal to survive. God will provide, it just might not be the way we are anticipating.

You shall not bear false witness

Instead we should speak well of our brothers and sisters. Gossip and deception only serve to destroy our community. Just imagine how we might start loving and treating and trusting each other if we believed that no one would speak falsely about anyone else. Think about how beautiful a town and a church such as ours could be if people took this commandment seriously and worked hard for it to become manifest. When we begin to speak well of others at all times, we start seeing the world through God’s perspective and not just our own.

You shall not covet

Instead we should be grateful. It is too easy to look around at all the sources of blessings in other people’s lives and begin desiring to take them for ourselves. How quickly do we begin to resent our coworkers when they are given a raise, how quickly do we begin to ignore our classmates when they receive a better grade, how quickly do we avoid our fellow church folk when everything starts going well in their lives as ours fall apart? God has given all of us gifts, large and small, seen and unseen, they are there we only need a change in perspective to realize them in our midst. God will provide in ways that are miraculous and beautiful. We need not covet what our neighbors have when we remember that God has chosen to be with all of us.

The Ten Commandments are a gift, they open up life for us rather than restrict, they call us to do more rather than simply obey, and they help to build and foster our community rather than destroy it. God’s Top 10 are part of the basics of faith, from them we learn how to grow as disciples and serve others. If we can move them from a memorized list to a practiced way of life, everything will begin to change for the better.

Amen.

Devotional – John 2.16

Devotional:

John 2.16

He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 

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“Now let us exchange signs of Christ’s peace,” the pastor bellowed from the pulpit. In quick and succinct fashion people rotated 360 degrees and shook hands with those closest and muttered, “peace of Christ.” Though it was something we did one a month, the passing of the peace was finished within 20 seconds, and people were ready to get on with the rest of the communion liturgy. For months I attended worship in that church, sitting in the same pew, but I never learned anyone’s name nor did I know anything about what was going on in their lives. I felt invisible even while I was surrounded by people.

That summer I was appointed to help a small church in the shadow of the Great Smokey mountains in western North Carolina. Passing the peace was something they did every week and it took forever. The pastor would casually invite us to greet one another with the love of Christ and before I knew it I was getting hugs from people I had never seen before and others wanted to know my life story. I overheard men making plans to go golfing in the afternoon, women sharing the latest bits of gossip from the community, and kids making fart jokes.

To go from one extreme to the other while passing the peace was difficult. Each week, when we hit the 10 minute mark during the peace, all I could think about was Jesus turning over the tables and rebuking the money-lenders and dove-sellers. Had we turned God’s house into a space no better than a marketplace? Where was the solemn respect for the divine, where was the recognition of God’s holiness?

The weeks passed throughout the summer and I continued to walk throughout the entire sanctuary during the passing of the peace and I began to learn about the people who called that church “home.” I got invited to dinner parties, people prayed for me and my calling while others moved around us, I even had a woman begin to confess her most recent sinful behaviors. I felt confused about what we were doing and how it fit into the worship of God in a church until an older gentlemen spied my discomfort and whispered in my ear: “this is how we build community; we don’t get many chances to check in on one another and this time, for us, is sacred.”

Jesus threw out the money-lenders because they were making a mockery of the temple. In that tiny rural church we shared our lives with each other during the passing of the peace, and it felt like what the church was really all about. Instead of just sitting down and facing the front without interacting with our brothers and sisters, that church made a point to pass the peace by building their community.

What is church like for you? Do you gather each week with the expectation of hearing a few prayers, listening to a sermon, singing a couple hymns, and going back to your regular life? Or do you see church as an opportunity to build your community by getting to love on, and communicate with, your brothers and sisters in Christ?

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Back to the Basics – Sermon on Mark 8.22-26

Mark 8.22-26

They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on is eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.”

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I was shivering at the front of our sanctuary with ashes all over my fingers. Whether at 7 am or 7 pm the services were virtually the same: it was cold and dark outside, those who came huddled together for warmth, I preached the same homily, used the same ashes, and said the same words as I marked each person: you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Ash Wednesday is one of those profound moments in the regular rhythms of church life where we admit something the world tries to claim the contrary: nobody makes it out of life alive.

I began both services with a brief introduction about the importance of Ash Wednesday, and the history behind it. We all prayed together. I read a selection from Psalm 51 about God creating in us clean hearts. I preached about living out our faith in the world as marked and cleansed people, and challenged each of us to act like the cross was still on our foreheads, even when the ashes faded away. I then prayed and blessed the ashes and invited everyone to come forward. There is something profoundly frightening and intimate about having people coming up to have ashes placed on their skin. We participate in an ancient ritual that is so contrary to the ways of the world. It is a privilege to come so close to the holy presence of God with each person who stood before me; looking them in the eye, holding their shoulder, touching their skin.

Before I offered a benediction for the services I invited everyone into a time of silence. While I prayed I was struck by the Spirit in a way that I had previously not encountered. I started thinking and praying for the people who were not in the sanctuary for the service. And I don’t mean for those of you who enjoyed Ash Wednesday from the warmth of your homes. I prayed for the people who came to our last Ash Wednesday service, but not this one. Because some of the people I held in my hands one year ago, I have buried in the months since. The words: “you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” take on a truly deeper meaning when the people go from worshiping in the pews, to resting in a casket at the front.

They brought the blind man to Jesus. Perhaps they wanted to see a public demonstration of his power and so they found someone for him to cure. Or they knew the struggles and sufferings of a friend and believed that Christ was the one to heal him. Whatever the case, the crowds begged Jesus to touch the blind man.

Jesus then took the man by the hand, and led him away from the crowds and out of the village. He spit into the man’s eyes, and laid his hands upon him. “What do you see?” Jesus asked. The man looked up and said to the Messiah, “I can see people, but they look like trees walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on the man a second time. Suddenly, the man’s vision broke through and his sight was restored and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him back to his home, commanding him to not even stop in the village.

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Is it strange that it takes Jesus two tries to get the healing right? Throughout the gospel accounts Jesus is the main man when it comes to healing and he gets it done right away. Paralyzed? Jesus says “take up your mat and walk!” Tied up with chains outside of the village because you’re possessed by demons? Jesus commands the demons out and sends you home. Your son is epileptic? Jesus says “all things are possible for the one who believes” and makes it so. But here in Mark 8 we have a strange story, a story that can only be found here in this gospel. Jesus is asked to heal a blind man, he uses his own spit for the first part, but it doesn’t work all the way, so he has to touch the blind man a second time.

I don’t know about you, but I love this story. I love how grounded it is in the material and physical world. I love the way that Jesus ignores the crowd and brings the man outside of the village. I actually love that it takes Jesus two tries to get it right because it says so much about our relationships with God. In fact, I love this passage so much, that I used it as the New Testament reading for Lindsey’s and my wedding. If I remember the wedding sermon correctly Jason, our pastor, said this about the choice: “The walking trees do-over miracle of Jesus with the blind man is a text that only a pastor would use at his wedding.

Yet, even with its strangeness and bizarre imagery, I love this passage. I think it works well for weddings; You only really see the person you’re marrying, after you marry them. Dating and being engaged is like seeing the other as a blurred image, but in the vows and covenant of marriage the other comes into focus, and we see what our lives truly become together.

Moreover, I think this text works well for the beginning of Lent, as it reminds us that sometimes it takes two tries to get this whole discipleship-thing figured out. In fact, it often takes more than two tries to get it right.

The story with Jesus and the unnamed blind man is a reminder about what our relationship with God is like. Before we become Christians, we see and experience the world with extremely limited vision. We believe that we are the center of the universe, that our primary purpose is to love ourselves and serve our needs no matter the cost. But then a strange thing happens. Maybe it occurred when you were invited to worship for the first time, or maybe it happened on a mission trip, or maybe it happened in the middle of the night after awaking from a strange dream; whatever the experience was, God became real for you for the first time.

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Some might say that as soon as that event takes place, you begin to understand God and see the world with clear vision. This story however, would claim the contrary. When we initially experience God’s wonder its like seeing people as trees walking. We are given a glimpse of what the world looks like turned upside down, we begin to grasp and understand what loving God and neighbor is all about. But our vision of discipleship is still dim and incomplete.

Frankly, this distorted and obscure vision of faith is where most Christians are located, myself included. We think we understand everything that God is doing and we think we are seeing things clearly, but its not the case. How many of us can rattle off all the words to the creeds and to the Lord’s Prayer, how many of us have the hymns memorized and can sing without looking down, how many of us really know and read our bibles, yet our vision is still dim?

Lent is the time for us to turn back toward God and see things clearly. We need to see God as God is. Not just the God of our liturgical creeds and hymnals, but the Lord of our hearts and homes, of our hopes, our prayers, and our needs. We desperately need a real picture of what faith looks like. Because faith cannot just be showing up to church once a week for an hour of worship. Faith is about giving your entire life over toward loving God and others 24/7, 365.

While I was praying after our Ash Wednesday services I realized that I don’t really know any of you. At least not to the degree that we are called to know and love God in our lives. While applying the ashes to some of your foreheads I saw what you allow me to see, I saw some of your celebrations, some of your failures, some of your hopes, some of your sins. I can strive to know you as deeply and as fully as I can, but I will only see you as a blurry tree depending on what you open up.

Yet, while preparing for funerals, I start to see a clearer picture of the person. It’s like God has touched me a second time and I finally begin to understand the kind of life that someone lived. Part of it comes from the vulnerability and honesty that families and friends are willing to share, but part of it comes from my willingness to finally ask questions that I never felt brave enough to ask while they were alive.

For all of us, our discipleship and relationship with God is often perpetually caught in this state of blurred trees. We show up to church, we pray, we read our bibles, but without a sure foundation of the basics of faith, our vision will always be limited. 

basics

That’s why, throughout the season of lent, we will take time each Sunday to return to some of the basics of faith. We might come to the table once a month to partake of Jesus’ body and blood, but do we really believe and know what we are doing? We might talk about being saved and affirming Jesus Christ as Lord, but what does salvation really look like, and why do we call Jesus our Lord? We might see the other people in our pews as brothers and sisters in Christ, but why is our relationship with them limited to Sundays mornings or church activities?

It is my hope that over the next few weeks all of us will receive that second touch from the Lord; by returning back to the basics we will begin to see faithful things and then to see all things clearly: God, ourselves, and others.

But that’s where we’re going. For today I was to focus on this: Our lives are gifts. We are privileged to be surrounded by such beautiful and unique people in our lives. From our co-workers, to fellow students, to friends, and family, and even strangers, we are blessed people. Yet, do we really know any of them? Do we really see them as they truly are? I promise that for all the perfect exteriors you might encounter, there are at least a few who, on the inside, are looking for someone like you to see the real them.

If we take this two part healing seriously than it’s up to us to initiate the second touch for the people around us. We could wait for them to show up and open up, but most of the time it will never happen. Instead we are given the chance to ask deep and important questions of the people in our lives. Questions like: How is it with your soul? What are you doing right now that is saving your life? Do you feel loved?

When you find someone and bravely ask them questions, you are like the crowds bringing the blind man to Jesus; you go into the world as Christ’s body, and by learning more about the other, you discover what it means to see things clearly. 

We begin our challenge here at the Lord’s Table. After we are invited to feast and confess our sins, we will exchange signs of Christ’s peace with one another. This is the chance for us to begin opening our eyes to the truth around us; We are a church of broken people, and when we love on each other and gather at God’s table, we start putting all the pieces back together. Amen.