Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


There Was a Man Born Blind

A Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

The Rev. Charles C. McCoart, Jr.

March 22, 2020

Listen here.

There Was A Man Born Blind

Hi everyone, thank you for tuning into today’s sermon.  

These certainly are wild and ever changing times and we at Emmanuel are doing our level best to adapt with the changing news and happenings all around us – all in a spirit of flexibility, joy and anticipation.  Working hard to stay in the present moment and not get hijacked into fear or hysteria.  We also recognize at this time that thousands of people have been negatively impacted by corona virus, some even have died and our hearts and prayers go out to all of them.  

I’m recording this message on Friday afternoon, so by the time we send it to you on Saturday, to listen to on Sunday, some of my homily may seem a bit out of touch with whatever our country is dealing with on Sunday.  It’s an ever changing landscape; please forgive me if these recorded words limp just a little behind life in real-time.  Thank you for your patience as we as a faith community try to navigate our way through this season of life WITH you.

Since this is homily / or sermon time, I’m mindful to not get hijacked into making announcements; but rather to offer some thoughts on the Gospel you just read from John.

In our Gospel lesson today there was a blind man in town––a man who was born blind––and Jesus gave him sight.  

I’ll just let that sentience sort of hang in our collective consciences for a few seconds.

There was a blind man in town––a man who was born blind––and Jesus gave him sight. 

We could say that Jesus restored his sight, but the man had never had any sight to restore.  He had been born blind.  Jesus created sight from nothing, just as God created the world from nothing––and then Jesus gave that newly created sight to the blind man.

You would think that everyone would have been happy, but they weren’t.  It was the sabbath, and sabbath law forbade working on the sabbath.  As ridiculous as it sounds to our modern ears, the Pharisees – the religious leaders of the day – believed that healing was work – so that no one should heal another person on the sabbath.  This was over 2000 years ago, so we need to understand this was a culture deeply rooted in tradition and tradition meant everything to folks in their community.  For some reason healing was considered work – and if you worked on the sabbath then you broke a law and breaking a law meant you had sinned.  As far as they were concerned, Jesus-the-Healer was a clear and present danger to the established order.

So the Pharisees tried to get the blind man––the one whom Jesus had healed––to acknowledge that Jesus was a sinner.  You would think that the formerly-blind man could resist that easily––but it wasn’t easy. The blind man had been a beggar all his life––begging was all he knew.  He was going to need help to get established––and these Pharisees were movers and shakers––they could make you or break you.

But the man didn’t waver under their questioning.  When the Pharisees asked the man what he thought of Jesus, he said, “He [Jesus] is a prophet” (v. 17). 

So then the Pharisees questioned the man’s parents.  You would think that the parents would have supported Jesus; but they too were afraid that the Pharisees would throw them out of the synagogue.  It’s hard for us to imagine how devastating that would be.  To be thrown out of the synagogue would have been like being run out of town on a rail.  Faced with such a prospect, the parents said, “Our son is of age.  Ask him.” (v. 23).

So the Pharisees tried to persuade the formerly-blind man that Jesus was a sinner, but the formerly blind man said this:

He said:

“I don’t know if he is a sinner.  One thing I do know,that though I was blind,now I can see” (v. 25). When they continued to press him, he said, “If (Jesus) were not from God, he could do nothing.” (v. 33).

So the Pharisees drove the blind man out.  Did they just run him off, or did they throw him out of the synagogue?  We don’t know, the Gospel writer doesn’t tell us.  But the man was undaunted.  When later he met Jesus again, he said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe.” (v. 38).

I can’t tell you how impressed I am with that man.  He was born blind and spent a lifetime begging alongside the road––but when the going got tough, he proved even tougher.  He BECAME a man of faith when Jesus healed him, and he STAYED a man of faith when powerful people started threatening him. 

This week ahead, let’s all keep our collective eyes open for the blessings, large or small, that God sends our way.  These blessings might be something tremendous, like being told a medical situation you are dealing with is moving in the right direction.  Or maybe the blessings will be more subtle, like re-discovering an old friend.

In the days since I have been working more from home than working in the office, I have spent much of my time calling the more senior members of our parish, as well as those who are medically frail.  I can’t tell you how many wonderful conversations I have had – and might not have had – were it not for this virus.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t love the virus; but I am choosing to do what I can given the circumstances we are dealing with.

I’d like to share with you a little journey I was on a couple of weeks ago … a journey all in my head and my heart.  I was dealing with a particularly tricky situation where two people I dearly love are at odds with each other.  I won’t say a word about either of them.  This is a story about me, not them.

After dealing with this situation for a very long time, things sort of came to a[nother] boiling-over point.  After a long day of working with these really good folks I finally went home and eventually made my way to bed, and of course I could not sleep.  I tossed and turned for what seemed like a very long time.  I prayed, but I was still stuck in my obsession with this issue.  I had been trying to remember the words of The Serenity Prayer and the words kept getting all mixed up in my head.  After a while I finally got up and out of bed, and went back downstairs to my kitchen table where my computer sits.  Max following right behind me.

I Googled:  Serenity Prayer.  And there it was.  All crystal clear and not all jumbled up.  And then I noticed, I’d forgotten the prayer is longer than most people actually pray.  We all know this part:

The Serenity Prayer

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change … courage to change the things I can … and wisdom to know the difference.

But, catch this:  there’s more:

Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.  Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it.  Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will.  That I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. 

Amen.

Amen! 

When I was in bed and all stuck and obsessed with what I was dealing with … I was literally blind.  I could not find the words.  I could not see myself through it.  As soon as I found the right words for me to pray, I could see.

As soon as God reminded me that I needed to accept the things I cannot change, and the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference, a calm came over me.  I prayed those words over and over and over again like a mantra and it worked.

The anxiety left me, I relaxed enough to eventually fall asleep.  I gave it to God.  I gave it all to God.  As a control freak I have to be reminded over and over again that there just are some things I cannot control.  Sometimes there are things I cannot change.

I’ll keep working on the things I can change and pray for the courage to do so.

But some things I need to give to God.  I need to trust that God has things way more under control than I ever will.

Thank you God for that prayer.

Please check out the rest of it though.  Linger with these words.  Do not deprive yourself of the rest of the words, the less(er) known part.

I need to live one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.  Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it.  Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will.  That I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. 

Amen.

Amen!

We can’t control corona virus.  There are some things I cannot change.

But I can change the way I respond.  I can socially distance myself.  I can call folks I know and love and check in on them.  I can learn new technology tricks as Joani drags me into the 21st century.

I have to trust God will have the wisdom to help me to SEE the difference.

Lord God, please help me to SEE.  To not be blind to all of the ways you are loving and working in this world all around us right now.

Lord God, during these turbulent times, help us all to SEE.

Amen.

Amen!

Please keep me in your prayers and know that you are in mine as well.

Peace, friends,

Chuck


Jesus wept.

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A Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

March 29, 2020

One of my favorite books is Gospel.  No, not the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John but a big, rambling 800-page novel by Wilton Barnhardt.  Gospel is the story of an eccentric hardboiled Chicago Irish professor and his nubile graduate student assistant, as they travel the world: Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Americas, in search of a fifth gospel, a lost gospel.

This lost gospel turns out to be the testament of Matthias. Matthias is the thirteenth apostle. Remember, the one who was chosen by a roll of the dice in the book of Acts.  Judas’ replacement. Matthias, you see, was not in that Upper Room with the other disciples when Jesus mysteriously appeared. Having not been on the resurrection scene, Matthias can barely wrap his head around what resurrection means.  He struggles daily with unbelief.  Matthias’ fictional gospel recounts his quest, the story of an old man, who seeks to find his fellow remaining disciples in their autumn years. 

Do they still believe? Do they still have faith in that wild, incredulous story? Do they still believe, after all this time, that life can come out of death?  

There are rumors, Matthias in the novel tells us. Persistent rumors that the body of their Lord had actually been stolen, and secreted away. The rumors haunt Matthias. He urgently wants to dispel them. So, he searches out the shady underground that traffics in relics.

Matthias pays the underworld guide a bag of silver, to be taken to what is claimed to be — Jesus’ hideaway tomb. The guide “brought me to the door of the chamber,” he says, “where the relic of Our Lord was supposed to be hidden.  But here, brothers and sisters, you shall find it strange, but I refused to go forward. The guide beckoned me to follow but I stood frozen in my path!  He approached what looked like the remains of a body and began to unwrap the dirty linen, but I demanded that he stop, and I fled up the stairs. I ran from the very truth I sought.”

Resurrection faith is hard to hold onto. It is hard to maintain. Like this doubting Matthias, can we really believe that life can come from death? That grief might be redeemed by joy?

Graveyards are haunting and holy places. They speak of sacrifice and loss, grief and sorrow. But also, gratitude, a rush of love for those who have gone before us.  A place of peace and rest. Memorials to hope.

We are in a grieving time, a very anxious time.   Social distancing is paramount. It is what we are called to do. It is our critical ministry of love to carry out for one another. Our ministry of love for our community and country. Our ministry of love to do what we can to contain the spread of the corona virus.

But Covid-19, at least for the time being, has been the death of our daily routines. We grieve the loss of being in church together, the loss of coffee with a friend, the loss of play dates, the loss of after school sports and sitting in the bleachers at baseball games. We grieve the loss of going to the office, happy hour after work with friends. We grieve the loss of touch and human warmth.

We grieve the cost to those most vulnerable: to those with no sick leave or insurance, to the Uber and Lyft drivers, to service and gig-workers, to the hungry and the homeless, to the immigrants, refugees, and the undocumented, to families with no childcare, and children without classrooms and without school meals.

We grieve the loss of lives already taken by the virus and for those who have lost a loved one when they cannot be by their side.

How do we stay connected to one another and to those who need us, in this upside down Covid-19 world?

Well, Jesus has something to tell us today.

Let’s listen to the story of Jesus today in the Gospel of John. The story of   Jesus creating life out of death: the raising of Lazarus. Now, I have always had trouble with the Jesus, John portrays in this story.  Jesus comes across a little aloof, a little cold and indifferent to the death of his friend. Waiting to employ his miraculous powers for maximum affect. To instill rock solid belief in doubting believers. It’s very likely the people of John’s community, late in the first century, two generations after Jesus, had trouble holding on to their resurrection faith. So, the evangelist John, and John alone, tells the story of the raising of Lazarus.

Now certain scholars believe that John simply made this story up. Made it up out of bits and pieces from the other gospels.

This cocky and confident Christ sounds more like the preaching of John than the Jesus I know and love. But read it again. The story’s core rings true. It is in the end, a story of a grieving friend whose faith was put to the test.

Hearing of his friend’s illness, a very busy Jesus, over scheduled, overburdened and preoccupied with his mission, is not overly concerned for Lazarus. Jesus believes he has the benefit of time but Jesus was wrong.

Dumbfounded and unbelieving, Jesus returns to Bethany. As he approaches the grave of his friend, he breaks down and cries. 

 Jesus wept.

Overwhelmed by grief, I imagine Jesus berating himself with Mary and Martha’s questions: O my God, Lazarus, why was I not here to comfort you?  Why did I not come sooner?  Maybe I could have made a miracle.  Maybe I could have healed you.

In tears, Jesus cries out. Father!  Hear me! Please, bring Lazarus back. Come out Lazarus. Come out.

And this is probably heresy, but I believe that when Lazarus stumbled out of the tomb that day, that no one was more surprised than Jesus. Just in time, before Jesus heads into Jerusalem, just before he climbs the hill at Calvary, Jesus felt and saw, that yes, God can and God does and God will call life out of death. God will roll away that stone.

And so, for us, just as well, we get a glimpse of Easter before Easter. A foretaste of hope, of life restored. Resurrected, yes but not the same. Some the same, but also different.

So, the things we grieve the loss of, the loss of so many daily connections, inspires us to find new creative ways to stay connected as the Body of Christ. And we are just beginning to figure this out as a community of faith.

What does pastoral care look like? Keeping it as personal as possible with phone calls, handwritten notes in the mail, and FaceTime. A “zoom” visit into your living room. “Zoom” visits to a bedside or a hospital room. Even from a distance, we can “lay on hands” of love. Don’t hesitate to reach out to Chuck or I, the contact info is in your “electronic bulletin.”

And if we weren’t before, we are all pastors now, pastors to one another. Your voice, your face on the other end of the line, your handwritten note can bring untold comfort and brighten someone’s day.

And spiritual formation? Well, we are all wrestling with angels now. In times like these, we look to our faith for strength and solace. So for families with children, “EEC Sunday school at Home” materials are included here, in your electronic bulletin. And for grownups? Consider “zooming” bible study, a book group, a “virtual Popcorn Theology. Maybe “zooming” God and Donuts gatherings, too? And if you would like to have a one-on-one conversation we can do “Rabbi by Appointment” via Zoom. Email me and I would be more than happy to set that up.

What does Outreach look like? This is both the most challenging and incredibly important. The financial repercussions of Covid-19 are enormous. Untold numbers of Americans (possibly even yourself) have been furloughed and have lost their jobs. On this front, the Outreach Ministry Team is coordinating with its many direct service ministries: bag lunches; shelter meals, etc. And online you can donate to Emmanuel’s Leaves of Love fundraiser for Refugee Ministry. You can donate to ALIVE, Carpenter’s Shelter, Meals on Wheels, and other organizations serving “the least of these” in our communities.

We are building this plane together as we go.

And as for worship, here we are together online, your “Associate for Liturgy & Hilarity,” is ever so grateful and happy to report.

God bless technology and the internet. God bless Google and Youtube. God bless Constant Contact and WordPress. God bless Voice Memos and Zoom. God bless smart phones, tablets, laptops and desktops, too. On Sundays (or anytime) with “Emmanuel at Home” on our screens, we can still gather, hear the sounds of sacred music, read the scriptures, listen to a homily like this one, keep up our pledge, so that the church can keep being the church in this very needful time. Engage your kids with “Emmanuel Sunday School at Home.”  And via Zoom, we will gather at 11:30 AM, in the ‘virtual parish hall for ‘“Emmanuel at Home Coffee Hour.”  

Chuck and I will both be there. I hope you will be there too. 

And stay tuned, Holy Week: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter, new creative versions of all, will also be coming to your inbox. Even in this upside down time, we will still be singing and shouting, “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

Stay well, Emmanuel, stay well & keep the faith.

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