Like most of the rest of the country, the saints at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights gathered virtually for worship on March 22. We had a skeleton crew inside the building (practicing good social distancing) and a vibrant connection with a community spread across three continents via Facebook live. Our texts included Psalm 25:16-22 and John 9:1-17.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below:
To view the entire service as it was live-streamed on FaceBook, try clicking this link. It is my understanding that one need not have FaceBook in order to view the recording.
Well, beloved, it has been a week, hasn’t it? I am sure that you have experienced the roller coaster of emotions and uncertainties every bit as much as have I. We watch the news, we talk to friends, we worry, we wonder, we wait and we watch.
“Stay home!”, we are told. How fortunate we are, how blessed, to be living in this age of technology. To think that we can comply with the mandate for “social distancing” and yet still somehow gather virtually in this fashion is, well, amazing. And the device that you’re using right now – well, that is incredible. To think – all of the wisdom of all of the ages; the great literature, the incomparable art, the profound knowledge that is available on this device – and yet we so often use it to post cat videos or share pictures of our food.
And we ask questions! If you have a social media account, you’ve seen people looking for recommendations to various dilemmas in their lives, or filling out quizzes as to which bands are the best, or wondering how many of the fifty states you’ve been to and how that compares with their lists.
We are questioners. In fact, I saw recently that the average four-year-old asks a staggering 437 questions in a single day. I suspect that some of you who are spending unexpected long stretches with the littles in your lives will back me up on this one.
Do you know who loved questions? Well, I am in church, and the answer is… Jesus. One writer (who must’ve had time even before the age of social distancing kicked in) has indicated that Jesus asked 307 questions in the gospels. He was asked 163 questions. Perhaps infuriatingly, for those in the room at any point, he often responded to a question with one of his own. You know that!
The disciples ask, “where could we get enough bread to feed such a crowd?” and Jesus replies, “how many loaves do you have?” (MT 15:32-34)
The jar of perfume was broken, and some present wondered, “why was this ointment wasted, when it could have been sold to benefit the poor?” Jesus answered by asking, “Why are you bothering this woman?” (MT 26:6-10)
Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (LK 4:38-40)
Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” (John 18:33-34)
The same writer says that Jesus only responded directly to a question with an answer a handful of times. Today’s Gospel reading is one of those times. He’s asked a straightforward question: “Look at that blind fella, Jesus. Who’s fault is it that he was born that way? His? Or his folks’?”
And Jesus gives a direct answer: “Look, friends: the man’s blindness has nothing to do with anyone sinning. He was born so that the works of God might be revealed in him.”
After announcing the works of God, Jesus proceeds to demonstrate them. He reenacts the creation story from Genesis by taking the dust of the ground and using it to bring life and wholeness. He brings new possibilities to this man, who has been marginalized for so long, and instructs him to rejoin, and to regain, his community. In his act of healing, Jesus opens a new pathway of wholeness and life for this man, his family, and the neighborhood.
The un-named man takes Jesus’ at his word and does just that – he re-engages with his family and his community… and then the questions really begin. In the next ten verses, we find that the crowd asks at least three questions (“Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?”, “How were your eyes opened?”, and “Where is this man?”), while the religious leaders add “How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?” and “What do you have to say about him?”
Everybody in town wants to know something. You see, everybody has a theory, or an idea. Everyone has a point to prove, a judgment to pass, “fake news” to dispel. Everybody is talking… except the guy we expect the questions from – Jesus. He is finished talking. He’s responded to his disciples; he’s healed the man, and he’s sent the man to be more fully himself. For once, the questioner is silent.
Now, although I want to be a follower of Jesus, I would never attempt to put myself in the same category as Jesus. I want to learn from him, and to grow. And one of Jesus’ habits that I’ve picked up along the way – one which is, I know, deeply irritating to many of you – is asking questions.
Some of you have heard me tell about the time I was preparing to drive two high school students somewhere. As they approached the car, one of them dove for the back seat, saying to her friend, “Look, you take shotgun. I never know how to respond to all those questions Dave asks all the time.”
And it’s true. I ask questions. If you have a friend dealing with a traumatic illness, after we pray together, I might say, “I wonder – how does this sickness affect you?”. A young woman lost the child she was carrying, and I asked, “how will life be different from what you had hoped?” A student announced that he’d gotten into the college of his dreams, and I asked, “What will change about your life as a result of this?” One of you came to me and talked about how difficult your life had been recently, and I asked, “Do you think you’d experience things otherwise if you drank less?” I don’t always ask the right question, and I’m sure that not every question that I asks feels good… but I’m seeking to do so with sincere hopes that these questions will lead you more deeply into God’s best for yourself.
And so in that spirit, I want you to think about this. We are in an age of pandemic. You know people who have, or who will have, the COVID 19 virus. You may have it right now and not even know. How will that virus affect you? How will it affect us?
And you can say – in all honesty and sincerity – “Geez, Pastor Dave, I don’t know. We’ve never been here before. This is all uncharted waters to us.” And you’re right. Most of us have not been here. But the Church has. We have gone through plagues and pestilence – while remaining ourselves.
And that is the question we need to discern, beloved. How do we live into the calling to be the body of Christ – a very corporeal word – the BODY of Christ – at a time when corporate – bodily – gatherings are at least discouraged and probably downright dangerous? I was speaking with a younger pastor earlier this week who said, “I don’t know, Dave… How are we gonna do this? I mean, when people are hit by hard news – when tragedy strikes – we’re supposed to get together, aren’t we? We have special services and vigils and candles. Are we supposed to do all this alone?”
On the day I was ordained, I received a small calligraphy that has been on the wall of my study ever since. In its most basic sense, it is my job description. It is our job description. Look:
Listen, beloved: none of that has changed. I think that Jesus expects that we are doing those things. The “what” has not changed… but the “how” must change, at least in the short run. How do we do these things that we’ve always done when we can’t act the ways we’ve always acted?
Thomas Pettepiece was an Irish Methodist who was imprisoned for his beliefs. In his book Visions of a World Hungry he recounts his experience of an Easter Sunday that taught him that we can do what we have always been called to do even when we don’t think we have what we have always had. Listen:
Today is Resurrection Sunday. My first Easter in prison. Surely the regime can’t continue to keep almost 10,000 political prisoners in its gaols! In here, it is much easier to understand how the men in the Bible felt, stripping themselves of everything that was superfluous. Many of the prisoners have already heard that they have lost their homes, their furniture, and everything they owned. Our families are broken up. Many of our children are wandering the streets, their father in one prison, their mother in another.
There is not a single cup. But a score of Christian prisoners experienced the joy of celebrating communion— without bread or wine. The communion of empty hands. The non-Christians said: “We will help you; we will talk quietly so that you can meet.” Too dense a silence would have drawn the guards’ attention as surely as the lone voice of the preacher. “We have no bread, nor water to use instead of wine,” I told them, “but we will act as though we had.”
“This meal in which we take part,” I said, “reminds us of the prison, the torture, the death and final victory of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The bread is the body which he gave for humanity. The fact that we have none represents very well the lack of bread in the hunger of so many millions of human beings. The wine, which we don’t have today, is his blood and represents our dream of a united humanity, of a just society, without difference of race or class.”
I held out my empty hand to the first person on my right, and placed it over his open hand, and the same with the others: “Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” Afterward, all of us raised our hands to our mouths, receiving the body of Christ in silence. “Take, drink, this is the blood of Christ which was shed to seal the new covenant of God with men. Let us give thanks, sure that Christ is here with us, strengthening us.”
We gave thanks to God, and finally stood up and embraced each other. A while later, another non-Christian prisoner said to me: “You people have something special, which I would like to have.” [Another man] came up to me and said: “Pastor, this was a real experience! I believe that today I discovered what faith is. Now, I believe that I am on the road.”
We who have always had the benefit of being able to gather freely, and to share abundantly, and to hug warmly – we are crying out: “How can we do this? How in the world are we supposed to give to the work of the Lord when there are not even any collection plates, and when we’re not sure what is happening with our jobs? How can we notice who’s missing when none of us are supposed to be here? How do we love when we can’t even see each other?”
Oh, beloved… let us ask God to unleash creativity in the church today. Let us press to discover new ways of doing these eternal tasks. Let us commit to intentional connectivity, to seeking windows of vulnerability, to read and reflect and pray as though those things really matter, and to give as generously as we can in ways that make a difference in the world today.
And above all else, dear people of God, I charge you this day to remember how deep and dark and cold and desperate these days feel. I charge you to remember how scared you have been, or how desperately you have really wanted to know, or be, or do something other than that which has been open to you in the past few days. I charge you to remember the depths of pain and loss that you see in your neighbors – the people you love – today. Remember these things – and when it gets better, as it surely will, remember these things the next time you are tempted to scorn a refugee or scoff at someone who is running for their lives. Remember that in our neighborhood, many of us were fighting over toilet paper. How will this experience affect us? I hope and pray that it makes us better human beings, more able to recognize and live into the Divine Image in which we are each created.
And in your remembering, dear ones, I charge you to live lightly this day. To do all that you can to treat the earth well, and to seek to heal it, rather than to dominate it. I charge you to deal gently and kindly with your neighbors – the ones you already love and those whom you’ve been instructed to love but you haven’t quite gotten there yet. And I charge to you behave as though you expect that the presence and glory of God is revealed in the ways that you and I enact the love of Jesus in this world.
If we can live in those ways, dear ones… then we will become the church of the empty pews and the full hearts. Thanks be to the God who has called us to be his own. Amen.
After the sermon, I shared with the congregation a rendition of a song that has meant a great deal to me in trying times. It is James Ward’s take on “Rock of Ages”, and if you’d like you can hear me sing it by using the media player below.
 Jesus is the Question: the 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 That He Answered, Martin Copenhaver (Abingdon, 2014).
 From Visions of a World Hungry by Thomas Pettepiece, quoted in A Guide to Prayer (Reuben Job and Norman Shawchuck, Nashville: The Upper Room, 1983), pp. 143-144.