Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
"He spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man's eyes." (John 9:6) What a marvelous way to get across the earthiness of Jesus. Remember, this is the Creator of the universe making mud pies with his spit. The Lord God Almighty getting his hands dirty, slapping some gunk on a guy's face and saying "here's mud in your eye!" The messiness of ministry. A divine miracle in mud and water. Supernatural spit. This has all the makings of a great story.
And it gets even better. The actual healing happens in just two verses near the beginning of chapter 9. As is typical of John’s gospel, the narrator then takes pains to move beyond the healing miracle itself to the variety of reactions to it, recording 30-something verses of dialogue following the dip in the Siloam pool, only some of which we’ve read aloud this morning. So let's take a moment to review highlights from the rest of the chapter.
The first thing that happens after the blind man has been healed is that some confusion arises about the man's identity. Some who'd seen him before were sure this was the man who used to sit and beg, while others thought maybe it was someone else who looked like him. Why the confusion? Well, certainly because no one expected a blind man suddenly to be given his sight. But I wonder if his blindness and his begging posture were to some of those who passed by him everyday also his most distinguishing characteristics. When suddenly this same man had his sight and was walking around among them, maybe he looked different to them? Perhaps they'd never looked all that carefully at him before? In any event, it's while people are busy talking about him in the third person ("Is this the man?") that he identifies himself to them for the first time: "I am he," and notice, he keeps saying it as the questions continue. In answer to their bewilderment about the alleged miracle, "then how were your eyes opened?" the text says he keeps telling them exactly what has happened, though he is unable to tell them where this Jesus is who healed him.
If scene one was the healing miracle itself and scene two is the confrontation between the healed man and his neighbors, now we've come to scene three: they bring the man to the Pharisees, presumably to see if they can explain what's happened. But they just ask the man the same question about how he'd received his sight, and he gives them the same simple answer: "He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see."
Then a new problem arises. Since this healing took place on the Sabbath, they’re concerned that the healer may have disobeyed Sabbath law and therefore may not be a man of God. Notice the shift in the topic of conversation. Instead of worrying about something inexplicable, they're focusing their attention on something they can understand. This alleged healing is strange and frightening, but Sabbath rules, those we can debate. Let's move this discussion into the realm of the law, and we'll have a better handle on it.
Whether or not Jesus actually violated the Sabbath law is unclear. I’m not entirely convinced he did, and that’s probably the topic for another whole sermon. But even if that werethe case, what should they make of the fact that a sinner would have then performed a miracle? So they ask the healed man a new question: "What do yousay about him? It was your eyes he opened." Fair question. But they don't much like the answer, "he is a prophet."
Scene four: the parents' turn. "Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he see?" Of course Mom and Dad haven't a clue howhe can see. They just repeat what we already know: that he was born blind, and now he sees. And then, for fear of the authorities, tell their questioners to direct all further inquiries to Junior.
All right, let’s review the options for a rational explanation of the formerly blind man’s claim. Maybe he isn't the same guy. Well, actually he is. Maybe the person who supposedly healed him was actually breaking the law. Well, maybe or maybe not, but then how do we explain what happened? OK, maybe this guy who's claiming to have been healed was never really blind in the first place. Except that his parents can testify to that, and they should know. Maybe none of the easy explanations are working. And so in scene five they call the healed man in for questioning again, this time with an even greater sense of urgency: "Give glory to God! We know that this man [you're talking about must be] a sinner."
And then comes the best part of the story, the chutzpah of this healed man, a man who used to beg from people like these, now apparently fed up with their unwillingness to believe him, and brave enough to state his case on a whole new level. "I've already told you what happened. Why do you keep asking? Do you also want to be his disciples?" He continues: "Here is an astonishing thing! You don't know where [this man] comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. . . If this man were not from God, he could do nothing."
Throughout the story, the healed man has continued to say the same thing. Here's what I don't know; here's what I know. I don't know where the man is who healed me. I don't know how he did it, and I don't know if he's a sinner. But thisI know: that though I was blind, now I see. In the end it all boils down to what one scholar calls "the irrefutable logic of experience." In answer to all the questions they can throw at him, the man born blind just keeps saying: Hey, I was there. It happened to me.
It's really the same logic we use when we talk to people about our faith, isn't it? I may not have all the details straight. I may not have the most eloquent words to describe my experience. And there’s a lot I just plain don’t know. But thisI know: that Jesus Christ is real to me. That God has made a difference in my life.
Incidentally, I’ve been giving myself permission to employ this same distinction in speaking about other issues I believe are close to God’s heart too. Here’s what I don’t know; here’s what I know. For instance, I’ll admit there are some complexities to current US immigration law that I’m not fully on top of, but this I know for sure: that children’s lives continue to hang in the balance on our border. That their hearts and spirits are being harmed by drawn-out political fights between adults. That as people of God we cannot stand by and say nothing when other human beings are called an “infestation” or when families with children are herded together in detention camps. Our nation has been there, done that, and ought to know better. God’s heart is breaking as this unfolds, and ours should too. God’s sense of justice cannot allow this, and neither should we. This much I know.
To return to our text, you may have noticed that so far I haven't addressed the opening dialogue between Jesus and his disciples when they first meet the man born blind. It's vitally important that we notice what's said there, so let's rewind back to the beginning of the chapter. "As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?'" Jesus responds rather more gently than I think I would have, explaining simply that "neither this man nor his parents sinned." But what an awful thing for the disciples to have said! To imply that a man's lack of sight demonstrated sinfulness! What could they have been thinking?
One possibility, I suppose, is that they weren't thinking. The text says as they were all walking along, Jesus noticed this man blind from birth. I imagine he stopped in front of the man for a moment; perhaps the disciples were just trying to break the awkward silence by blurting out the first thing that came into their minds. But this isn't the kind of thing you'd blurt out unless on at least some level you thought it was a reasonable thing to say. Nor was this probably the first time the man born blind had heard it said about him.
In fact, behind the disciples' question lies a long history of biblical questions about the role of God in human suffering. Any of you who've read the book of Job will be familiar with the problem and with some of its proposed solutions; Job makes it clear there aren’t always simple answers. At least in this lifetime, the wicked are notalways punished and the faithful arenotalways rewarded. And thank heaven the Bible admits this, because any weeks’ news cycle – or for that matter a stroll down any hospital hallway - gives ample evidence of that painful truth.
But before we're too rough on the disciples for their question about the blind man's sin, which simply reminds us that the book of Job didn't successfully settle the question once and for all, think about how easy it is for us to revert to this kind of logic even today. Either in a casual way: "What have I done to deserve this?!" Or in response to tragedy: "There must have been a reason." It hasn't only been in the ancient world that popular theology has seen a connection between misfortune and sin, between suffering and a lack of faith. But Jesus makes it clear here; neither this man nor his parents sinned. His blindness has nothing to do with anything they may have done or left undone. Neither, by the way, does her breast cancer, or his depression, or their miscarriage or that hurricane. Sometimes bad things just happen, and to good people. That's the reality of life. That's the irrefutable logic of our experience in this world.
But it’s the second part of what Jesus says about the blind man in John 9:3 that’s a little more difficult for me. The part where he explains, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blindso that God's works might be revealed in him." Here Jesus shifts the focus of attention from the past to the future, from the cause of the man's blindness to some good which may come out of it, from what just is to what can yet be. So far so good. What I have trouble with is generalizing from particular instances like this one, as if every situation of human suffering will necessarily result in something good. There are too many tragedies in this world that seem to defy godly explanations. There are too many children of God suffering so deeply it would be crass to say they do so in order that some great purpose might come about.
But in this case, Jesus does say about this man's blindness: look, here was a terrific opportunity for God to act. And act magnificently, to this man's great benefit and the crowd's amazement, is precisely what Jesus does here in John 9. That good ends don't always come about from situations of suffering doesn't mean that they never can. And we can certainly be grateful to God when they do.
As our community of faith gathers for worship each week, we come with a wide variety of experiences. Among us are some who've experienced amazing healing, and some who have longed for it for years and notreceived it. Some may have even been on the receiving end of hurtful words in times of pain. And some just wish they could be patched up with some magical mud from our Savior's hands. Jesus Christ, our Great Physician, our Gracious Comforter stands ready to welcome us all.
So come as you are. May you find what you need.
And perhaps someday, without any obligation to answer every question that may be asked about how God works in the world, you’ll be given an opportunity to tell your small piece of the story. Perhaps like this man in John 9, you’ll be able to say: “Look, there are any number of things I don’tknow, but this much is clear to me.” Or “here’s what I’m not sure about, but here’s how God found me, reached me, helped me.”
In other words, “This? This I know…”
Sloyan, John, 125.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
The same phrase from our gospel reading that I’m using as our sermon title today – “come and see” - comes up again just a few chapters later too, in John 4. There Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well, has a remarkable conversation with her, and inspires her to return to her neighbors saying, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done. He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (John 4:29)
Back here in chapter 1, asked by these would-be followers, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” it’s Jesus himself who first says, “Come and see.” But later on Philip, struggling a bit to convince his friend Nathaniel of Jesus’ importance, finally just says to him, “come and see.”
We learn both from Philip and from that Samaritan woman at the well that our job is simply to offer folks the opportunityto meet Jesus; what happens after that is his responsibility. We don’t even have to worry about being the perfect witnesses as long as we invite others to check him out for themselves.
As D.T. Niles has said, “Evangelism is witness. It is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” We are only here at all this morning because at some point in our lives a parent or grandparent, a friend, a neighbor, a teacher, someone invited us, through their words or actions, to “Come and see” this Jesus of Nazareth.
It’s a gift we’re privileged now to be able to pass on.
So it’s worth asking the question from time to time: what is it about Jesus that most impresses you? What is it that drew you to him? What inspired you to become his follower? Because these are the things we want others to have a chance to come and see.
And just as we can introduce others to Christ in this way so simple it sounds like “show and tell” from our elementary school days, we can also introduce them to this part of Christ’s body, here at Magnolia Presbyterian Church.
All we really need to do is to help people see what we experience here. Come and see the joyful energy of our kids singing praise songs they’ve learned in Sunday School. Come and see our high school and college students taking leadership roles in our congregation. Come and see how we’re getting the building back in shape, and how happy we are to be able to host a new preschool in the fall. Come and see how much we love and support one another, through all of the highs and lows we experience in life. Come and see us all diving in and building sandwiches for our friends at Tent City 5 on first Sundays. Come and see the feast we put on over at Operation Nightwatch once a month. Come and see what funit can be to be part of this church family.
You don’t have to give anyone a treatise on Presbyterian theology. You’re not required to quote our bylaws or to know the Bible inside and out. We’re all still learning!
Just - “come and see.” To a classmate or fellow parent at your school. To that old friend you keep running into at the grocery store. To your new neighbor in the apartment next door. “Come and see.”
Now let’s be clear here – God save us from any kind of false equation that insists that a large number of people is automatically a sign of the health or faithfulness of a congregation. We can have these things in any size church. And any size church can be unhealthy and unfaithful, too. We’re just called to follow Jesus, and to invite others to do the same. Whether they choose to do so, and certainly whether they choose to do so here in particular – that’s in God’s hands. So I’d hate for any of us to get caught up in the numbers game, or to feel the reason to invite people to come and see is simply to have a larger crowd on Sunday mornings.
But think about the impact we could have – the gentle little ripples that could move out into the neighborhood and beyond - if more people simply knew what we were up to here.
They don’t have to become church members.
They don’t even have to be Christians.
But what a difference it could make if they knew– not wondered or speculated or worried – but actually sawfor themselves, and understoodwhat we were about.
Just as our friends at the Muslim Association of Puget Sound have been inviting us to come and see what they’reabout at their open houses, and I’ve been inviting you to come with me – and some have - to meet the people of God who worship there. Or like I invited you to join me – and some did – for a Jewish worship service at Temple Beth Am last month. “Come and see” what it looks and sounds like to worship God with Hebrew prayers, and jazz music!
I’ve also been doing the same in reverse. Inviting my Muslim friend Aneelah Afzali to join us not just for her big keynote presentation at the “Faith Over Fear” event here next Sunday afternoon but for a regular Sunday morning worship service with us in the fall. My daughter Alina and I also invited a couple members of her youth group to join her when she comes. I’ve invited my rabbi friends to come and visit us too. Simply to see what we’re about here. There’s much to be gained by learning more about each other’s faith traditions and worship practices. And it’s not hard to do. It’s just that simplest of invitations: “Come and see.”
Of course the “come and see” that applies specifically to this congregation is only a tiny piece of the puzzle, right? The real invitation is not simply to meet us, but along with us, to meet the God who made us all.
Some of you will remember that beautiful refrain, the uniting element in everything our confirmation students shared with us last Sunday: God. Loves. Everyone.
I’m afraid there are an awful lot of people who don’t actually know this about God. They may feel unloved or unlovable. Or they may fear God is more interested in judging us than loving us. Or they might mistakenly believe that while God loves them, there are a whole lot of other people in the world that God is against.
I wish they could see what we see.
I wish we could show the world there is a way of being God’s people that is profoundly different from the judgy meanness that more often makes the news. I wish there were a way – don’t you? – to share with our neighbors that faithful Christians can be about kindness and compassion rather than condemning people for their sins, that it’s possible to be a faithful Christian and to respect and admire our Muslim and Jewish neighbors, and while we’re at it, that we can stand in solidarity with our immigrant and refugee neighbors too, rather than seeing them as alien, or less-than, or “other.”
I wish there were ways to do this…
But what if there already are?
What if we were to invite our neighbors to join us now and then for an ice cream cone on our front patio, as we did last week? No strings attached. No hidden agenda of trying to get them to join the church. Just ice cream with a bunch of friendly people.
What if we were to turn our bulletin boards into kind of a church family photo album, if you will, so that anyone coming and going for any reason (for an AA meeting, for preschool, or for that matter just to deliver a package, or make a repair around the building)… what if people walking through our doors could instantly tell what kind of community this is, just by glancing at those photos?
What if we were to continue to bring a whole bunch of food to our friends at Tent City 5 and Operation Nightwatch every month, and not make a big deal about it, but just demonstrate by the quality and quantity of the food, and the spirit in which it’s offered, that we believe God loves every one of those individuals just as much as God loves us. That they too are made in God’s image and precious in God’s sight.
What if people could see first-hand a bunch of high school students who consider church involvement a “get to” rather than a “have to,” and hear them describe this church in their own words, as they did last Sunday? As a welcoming sanctuary for every person, a safe place filled with family, a place to think and ask hard questions, a community that challenges and inspires us to reach out to others.
What if we were to host an interfaith event, inviting church friends from all over Seattle, sure, but also letting neighbors who’ve had no particular interest in church know there are Christians here at this corner, and throughout Magnolia, who support American Muslims, as fellow citizens and fellow people of faith, and who won’t stand by and allow them to be mistreated?
The same God those first disciples encountered in Jesus of Nazareth knows each one of us, and each of our friends and neighbors, just as intimately as he knew Philip and Nathaniel and the Samaritan woman at the well. He welcomes our curiosity and questions, along with our worship. He inspires every act of hospitality or kindness or compassion.
The God we’ve come to know in Jesus is the reason we’d bother to invite anyone into this or any church. And God’s gracious love stands ready to welcome and embrace everyone who seeks him.
All of which makes me want to say - Come and see!
Charge to this year's Confirmation Class
by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Rather than a separate sermon this morning, since they’ve already shared so much wisdom in their own words, I simply want to offer a brief charge to our newest members. So Natalie, Brayden, Caleb, Mimi – this is for you. (Though the rest of you are welcome to listen in.)
I wanted you to know, first of all, that I have talked all spring, to anyone who would listen, about what a gift it has been to lead your confirmation class with Pastor Justin. You are a remarkable group. Having been here for a number of the growing up years we saw in the slideshow already made this particular confirmation class a treat. Even better? The opportunity to get to know you now as young adults, and the happy news that you are interested in continuing our high school class next year. I can’t wait to keep discussing your fantastic, sometimes really challenging questions. As you keep growing in your faith, you’re helping Justin and me to grow in ours too!
You’ll see in the bulletin that I’ve titled this charge “Fearless,” and you’ve already shown yourselves to be quite brave in what you’ve done here this morning. The courage it takes for a teenager to stand up in front of a room full of people and make promises before God and everyone about who he or she wants to be in their Christian life? That’s a hugestep. And we are all really proud of you today.
Knowing as I do what you’ll be sharing in our prayers later on, I also know youknow fearlessness will be required of you in other situations too. Because in many ways it’s a strange and scary world these days. But here’s the thing - it’s still God’s world. And God has made us some really important promises in today’s Scripture readings. First, in Isaiah: “Do not fear, for I am with you. Be not afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” And then in Romans. “I am convinced that nothing… will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Don’t be afraid, God says, for I’m with you no matter what. And I love you no matter what. It’s like the singer was saying to God in the slide show sound track: “You’ll never stop loving us, no matter how far we run. You’ll never give up on us.”
Or as I once heard someone put it, “God loves you and there isn’t a thing you can do about it!” You’re stuck with God’s love your whole lives long and even beyond. As we said in our call to worship today, “in life and in death we belong to God.”
That’s what allows us to be fearless.
Fearless in doing what’s right.
Fearless in speaking the truth.
Fearless in asking hard questions.
Fearless in being kind, to everyone.
Fearless in including everyone.
Fearless in standing up to bullies, and in being brave allies for those who are bullied, whether that bullying happens in the hallways of our high schools or in the halls of power in our country.
Fearless even in standing up to our friends when necessary, if we find them leading us in directions we know we shouldn’t go.
As you read around in your new Bibles, you’ll find God’s messengers telling us quite often not to be afraid. They say it a lot because we need to hear it a lot. Fear not. Be not afraid. In other words, be fearless.
Now as I see it, being fearless doesn’t mean we won’t be scared. It’s more about how we function when we face scary situations. We remember God’s promises – never to leave us, always to love us – and we keep going. In spite of all that’s wrong in the world, we forge ahead anyway. We do the kind thing, the loving thing, the just thing anyway. We find ourselves in tough situations, and we take our place on the right side of history anyway.
The need for this kind of courage, and the ability to demonstrate it, knows no age limit. I’ve seen 5-year-olds and 95-year-olds who are passionate about social justice, who are passionate about their faith in God, and who have shown themselves to be fearless in speaking and acting on what they believe. And there’s no question the four of you have that potential too.
In fact, it’s more than potential. Brayden, Caleb, Mimi, Natalie, I believe you already are fearless, in some of the best ways, and I know I speak for Pastor Justin and the whole congregation in saying: we can’t wait to see what God accomplishes through you. In fact, “all of heaven shouts – let the future begin!”
So look out Church. Look out, world. This fearless foursome is stepping up and making a difference. And as their church family, we’re privileged to witness it! Amen.