During Lent 2015 I will be exploring a number of persons who met Jesus, and for one reason or another left his company, and then re-engaged him at a later time. My hope is that in exploring these people who returned to Jesus, I can learn more about what it might mean for me to continually orient myself in a Christ-ward direction. Our reading for March 29 came from John 9:35-41 and focused on the day that Jesus healed a blind man and the conversations that ensued.
I am not sure how Google or FaceBook know what they know about me, but something in my internet history seems to indicate that I would be interested in seeing the recent film Unbroken. It’s the true, or at least true-ish, story of a young World War II Airman who is shot down, survives 47 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean, is captured by the Japanese, and endures some horrific treatment in POW camps.
I have not seen the movie, but it would seem to me that it has something in common with other blockbusters of recent years such as Life of Pi or 127 Hours. In each of these cases, we follow the story of an amazing individual who is lost from society but who somehow holds on through grit, determination, or even cutting off one’s own arm in a desperate attempt to re-enter life, to re-engage the world on one’s own terms, or to succeed. We like those movies, and even if you are not familiar with those particular films, you’ve seen stories like that – we love to make them into movies.
You have not, however, come across the movie version of the day in the fall of 1975 when the AFS club from Cologne, Germany, was visiting the AFS club in Wilmington DE. During that visit, a beautiful young fräulein named Heike had the misfortune to be smitten with a dashing trombone player from Concord High School as we made the obligatory field trip to Washington DC. We may or may not have been whispering sweet nothings to each other and may or may not have been paying close attention to the announcement as to where and when to meet the bus for the trip home. Oddly enough, we did not get on that bus for the trip home until the police picked us up wandering outside the White House looking for a group that was waiting at the US Capital Building.
You probably also never saw a film about the family of four who, after having been lost for hours in a corn maze in Massachusetts, called 911 in a panic. “We came in during the day time and we got completely lost and we have no idea where we are,” the caller told the 911 operator. “I’m really scared. It’s really dark and we’ve got a 3-week-old baby with us… We thought this could be fun. Instead it’s a nightmare”. A rescue unit, complete with K-9 dogs was dispatched and located the couple 25 feet from the maze’s exit.
Unbroken, Life of Pi, or 127 Hours? Blockbusters. Field Trip Blunders or Cranky in the Corn Maze? Nobody wants to see those movies.
There is something in us that loves to hear about people who have thrived under difficult circumstances. We love and applaud self-made men and women who have pulled themselves together. All of our best stories about people getting lost have something to do with plucky heroes and stick-to-it-iveness. Even The Wizard of Oz, for crying out loud.
In our worship this Lent, we have been looking at stories of people who came back to Jesus. We’ve met John’s disciples, the demon-possessed man, the twelve apostles, Mary from Bethany, and the seventy-two who were sent out. All of them met Jesus at one time or another, and then left, and then came back. Each of them sought intentionally to re-engage him. They saw him, they knew that he was something special, and so they found him at a later time and presented themselves, their issues, their stories, their needs, or their hopes to him. Does that sound about right?
John 9 tells us a different story. The central figure is a man who apparently knows nothing about Jesus. The chapter opens with Jesus and the twelve walking along engaged in a theological discussion about the nature of God, healing, forgiveness, and more. Jesus, apparently wishing to make a point, pulls a blind man into their midst, heals him, and sends him on his way as they continue the discussion.
Unfortunately, this happened to take place on the Sabbath, which created a firestorm of controversy with the religious leaders. These men, who were already angry with and threatened by Jesus, decided that they needed to make an example of him for doing something so offensive as healing on the Sabbath.
And so, for the second time that day, this unsuspecting man who is, so far as we know, simply minding his own business, is drawn into a group of people having a theological argument. This time, the religious leaders demand that he denounce Jesus. He won’t do it.
The authorities drag his parents into it, and we learn that they are afraid because anyone who confesses that Jesus has power will be “cast out” of the worshipping community.
One more time, they go out and find this poor man and interrogate him, only to have him say, “Look, all I know is that I was blind, and now I can pass any vision test that’s offered. I don’t know this fellow. Go find him yourself.” That angers the religious people so much that they drive him out of the congregation.
All of that action happens prior to our reading for today, when, in keeping with our theme for the Lenten season, we see what happens as the man re-encounters Jesus.
So far as we know, not once in this man’s life has he ever gone looking for Jesus, but now, for the second time in as many days, Jesus finds him. And although Jesus has healed the man, he’s also made life a little tricky for him, to say the least. He is no longer eligible for membership in the covenant community – he has been driven away by the leadership.
And yet Jesus, once more, comes looking for him.
This should not be surprising to readers of John’s gospel, because in chapter six Jesus says “whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (6:37). The end result, for this man, at any rate, is that he worships the living God in the person of Jesus. He was not looking for Jesus, and yet Jesus sought him, changed him, healed him, accepted his worship, and embraced this man. A man who, let’s not forget, was not even looking for Jesus in the first place.
So what’s the point here? What are we to take away from this encounter, or, more precisely, this re-encounter, with Jesus?
Well, it strikes me that too often we are content to simply pass people by. If we notice at all, we notice in a way that does not permit any real interaction. “Ah”, we say, “Look at that one. She is so ________. He is too ___________.” And we keep on going. It’s not that we are blind to others or to their situations. We simply can’t – or won’t – see them. What would happen, I wonder, if we were to stop and engage on a meaningful level?
And sometimes we notice, all right, but then we respond less than admirably. How many religious communities can you think of who are known for or somehow proud of the height of the fences with which they surround themselves and by which they keep undesirables out? Think about the people you know who have been wounded by the church of Jesus Christ – people who are often broken or scarred in some way who experience greater pain at the hands of those of us who are called to serve. There are times when, in our zeal to be “pure” and “worthy” followers of the one who said, “All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away,” we wind up, well, driving people away.
You know as well as I do that the church can be one of the cruelest places on earth. Christians, I say with some shame, can be downright mean.
I love my daughter for all kinds of reasons, but one of the things for which I am grateful is the way that she sought to include me in a group of friends that she made while she was in college. She found herself gathered with a number of young adults, many of whom had been kicked out of their churches. They were guilty of crimes like being tattooed, or using tobacco, or asking difficult questions… They may have been girls who got pregnant at the wrong time, or who enjoyed the “wrong” music… Ariel invited me to spend time with these young people who loved Jesus, but who had experienced rejection from a group of people that used his name. While I am deeply saddened by the pain that these young people endured, I am gratified that my daughter thought that my presence would be of some encouragement to her friends.
I’d like to share a special word with those who might be present who have experienced this kind of pain from the church – either this congregation or some other group of Christians. Beloved, look to Jesus Christ. Please do not confuse anyone – including me – who has somehow ever done anything that drove you away from the Lord with the person or presence of Jesus. To the extent that anyone – including me – has driven you away from God’s best, we have failed to be disciples, and therefore need to ask forgiveness from you and from God.
Today is Palm Sunday, and we gather today to remember the time that the folk in Jerusalem tried to throw Jesus a party. It did not go well, in part because it ended with Jesus weeping on a hillside as he considers the fact that even the ones who meant best were unable to see him for who he really was. In fact, he said, they were not even sure who they were themselves. “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” Jesus said… “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!”
And as we walk through the events of this Holy Week, we will remember the fact that he came to his own people, but they could not accept him. The story of much of this week is that he himself was driven away by those who claimed to have the “inside track” to God. If you’ve ever been wounded by the church, know that you have company – Jesus was hurt by the religious establishment a long time before you were.
Here’s a “spoiler alert” for next Sunday’s worship: he comes back. They drive him away, all right, in incredibly cruel and vicious ways, but they cannot keep him away. He is still looking for those who are willing to be shaped by him and used for his purposes.
This lent we have considered the fact that some people see Jesus and come running to meet him, again and again and again. Heal me, Lord. Take me. Use me.
But others don’t ever really get a glimpse of him, it would seem. Because they don’t see him, they don’t know, and therefore they don’t care.
And, saddest of all, there are many who have laid eyes on the savior, but who have somehow become convinced that they are simply not welcome to be with him. Somehow, these have been driven out.
Today, we are called to remember that we love and serve the Lord our God, who is eager to embrace those who seek him. We are called to point to the one who is willing to turn aside and engage even those who do not seek him and who, in fact, seems partial to those who have been told that they are not worthy of his attention at all.
In that light, friends, let us not give up on Jesus, or each other, or ourselves. May we have the vision to see and to know that Jesus is not particularly overwhelmed with those who heroically make their own way in the world day after day after day, and seems instead to be delighted to simply find people who realize that they are not where they should be.
I’ve done a lot of stupid things, and while I may never have been stuck in a corn maze, I’m here to tell you that my most common prayer is “help!” And Jesus has always seen me. I have been lost. Many times. And I have been found. Not once, but always. Thanks be to God. Amen.