Sunday, November 14, 2004

Two Beggars

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: John 9

“These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20:31).

This year we will scale a great promontory, the highest peak in the Bible, which is the Gospel of John. With every cut-back trail, at every rest point, atop every lookout, with every majestic view, this spiritual gospel will address you with the choice of freedom, with the ongoing need to choose, and in choosing to find the life of belonging and meaning, personal identity and global imagination.

In John 9 we reach the summit. Here this morning is the crucial chapter within the Fourth Gospel. In it we see clearly the two level drama of faith which John acclaims. Said Luther, “preaching the Gospel is one beggar telling another where they both may find bread”.

Today we meet two beggars. One is a man lost in the mist of memory, who somehow recovered his sight at the pool of Siloam. The other is the church, John’s church, and by extension Asbury First, existentially lost, who somehow recover sight at the hand of Jesus the Christ. John has two eyes at work. One is trained on the distant memory of a powerful Jesus. The other is trained on the experience of the Risen Lord in the life of the church. Both see the healing action of the divine.

This blind beggar, and his healing, and all the trouble that such a good deed occasions, is important to John because in him John sees clearly what is going on in his own church. At Siloam, there was a lonely beggar. We are beggars too. In Jerusalem, one was powerfully healed. We have been healed too. With Jesus, a man’s sight, his most prized faculty, was restored. So too our spirit. So long ago, Jesus was heard to say, “I am the light of the world”. He is the light of our world too. Did Jesus of old bring healing to the needy? By grace he does so every week in our midst still! What the earthly Jesus did for the blind beggar, the Risen Lord does for the beloved church.

That’s the good news.

There is other news too.

At Siloam, Jesus heals on the Sabbath. We too have learned that the Sabbath was made for man and not the other way around. In Jerusalem, there is immediate conflict over what this new Power means for old traditions. We too know the conflict between gospel and tradition. With Jesus’ healing there comes a division between generations. Such contention and difference is ours too.

Our gospel shows us two beggars, one in Jerusalem a long time ago. And one which is the church itself, to whom Jesus speaks, the Risen Lord speaking in the spirit through the very human voice of John.

Of the first beggar, blind in Jerusalem, we may say: He was visited by Jesus; he was exonerated by Jesus; he was touched by Jesus; he was sent by Jesus; he was commanded by Jesus; he trusted in Jesus; he was healed by Jesus; he was questioned about Jesus; he witnessed to Jesus; he told the truth for Jesus; and for this, and for his Lord, he paid a price. He was shunned. He was thrown out of the synagogue.

Of the second beggar, the community for whom the Gospel is written, blinded by dislocation and disappointment, we may say: They were visited by Jesus; they were exonerated by Jesus; they were touched by Jesus; they were healed by Jesus; they were commanded by Jesus; they trusted in Jesus; they were healed by Jesus; they were questioned about Jesus; they witnessed to Jesus; they told the truth for Jesus; and for this, and for their Lord, they paid a price. They were shunned. They were thrown out of the synagogue.

Two blind beggars, one a man and one a church. Expulsed, thrown out, shunned, set apart.

Most especially, in this crafted memory, the blind man given sight is then thrown out of the synagogue for consorting with Jesus. And this is the central communal dislocation of John’s church. The beggar was thrown out of the synagogue, and John’s church too, is like a beggar, wandering outside of inherited tradition. And we are, too.

The expulsion from the religious family of origin has two dimensions, one of sight and one of sound, one sociological and one theological. First, in actual experience, the little and poor community has lost its roots and its support. It is dislocated. Second, in the nature of hope, the community has now to find new resources, new ways of thinking about hope. It is disappointed.

(Why the separation? For the Jewish community, John’s high claims about Christ amounted to a breach of monotheism, a kind of ditheism, two gods. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one….” And the charge had merit. Now we can say so many years later, why this is minimal, look, by the fourth century the church acclaimed not one, nor even two, but three persons in the Godhead!)

Here is the greatest of good news, for us, this day! The Risen Lord addresses us through His Word and places us in earshot of saving grace and lasting freedom! By grace ye are saved through faith, and not by the works of the law! For freedom Christ has set us free, stand fast therefore and do not be enslaved again!

And that is today’s gospel, in brief. Now we may ask, is there any application we may make to our life today? Given that 14 minutes still remain in the sermon time allotment, we may hope so! And in fact, two applications quickly appear, one of grace in dislocation and one of freedom following disappointment, one sociological and one theological, one of faith and one of hope, one for the church and one for the world.


For nine years we have worked hard to reconnect our congregation to the connection of the United Methodist Church. As you know, I am and will continue to be a life-long, committed, and loyal United Methodist. So we have worked for the future health of our denomination as strongly as possible. We have paid massive apportionments, and yet relationally we are somewhat shunned in our conference. We have instituted a connectional Sunday, sponsored a pulpit exchange, participated in youth ministries, and yet our voice is not fully heard for the future of the denomination. We have sent our clergy now every year to conference, and have taken our places, hours on end, in the Visioning Committee, on the Board of Ministry, on the Finance Committee, in teaching and preaching across the area, yet we are “put out of the synagogue” when the voting occurs. We have hosted the meeting of the conference, even, and yet in the gathering we are distant cousins.

John’s gospel can really help us, here and now. We are not the first to know the endless contention and intractable difference that are a part of all institutional life. There will be grace enough and to spare in this period of turbulence. We can be kind without being dishonest. We can be honest without being unkind. This week we gave over to God one of our greatest saints. A woman raised in the heart of the Methodist tradition, whose loving witness epitomized the combination of deep personal faith and active social involvement which Mr. Wesley taught…A champion of women’s ministry…A graduate of a Methodist school…A lover of people who also did all the good she could…A great hearted person who knew that institutional and spiritual needs, when true and real, are in full concert. Friends, as long as we have the healing presence of such insightful saints, we will be able to make our way forward, and to deal with dislocation. Yet, to move forward with health, we will need to confer and discern together, with kindness and with honesty.

Honestly, in these years I see now, by a sort of restoration of sight to the blind, which comes by the light of the world, that I may have acted the part of the co-dependent spouse, with regard to this connectional relationship. Our beloved connection, our conference, is, from my perspective, addicted to frightful outspending and overspending. This is the pattern of addiction. It is a systemic, not an individual dilemma. The co-dependent protects the addict from reality, through denial, through ignorance, through avoidance. How does the co-dependent become truly helpful? By recognizing the condition, and by engaging a full, careful process of honest, kind discussion. A special meeting, for which we can gently and carefully prepare, is scheduled with our superintendent for April 18, 2005.

Am I preaching only to myself? Or do you recognize some signs of co-dependency in yourself? At home, at work, in family, in community, in friendship?

Our story of sight restored will have to wait for its inclusion in the future life of our denomination. We can wait, until the time for speaking comes. We can wait, wait without idols, until the end of this particular word famine. We can wait, and be ready and happy to speak and lead, down the road, when there is a teachable moment, a readiness to hear. Truth, as Kierkegaard reminded us, is not so much known, as lived. And through it all, as we have done, we can continue to love, love, love, in thought, word and deed. But not in co-dependence.

Here, just here, right here in our communal need stands the Gospel of John, a moment in the Day of God and the Gospel of Christ: you will find grace for every time of need. In the supreme dislocation, the movement from dysfunction to well-being, from addiction to sobriety, you will sense and you will know real grace.

That is one possible application of this gospel to our life, John 9 at Asbury First. Here is another.


On Friday I was brought to heel sitting at the red light on Goodman and East. At the corner a man was being tutored in the use of a seeing eye dog. The old black lab, harnessed and steady, was ready to guide him across the street, and his care-giver, a strong woman, held him at the shoulder from the back. Green came for him and the dog pulled forward. But the noise was great, and the wind was blowing, and the traffic was heavy, very heavy, and drivers were zinging left and right, all in the shadow of the Lutheran Church. And this dear young man held fast in fright. He could not move. The dog pulled and the woman pushed and he froze. At last, she saw that he was not ready. And her arms went around him to a great hug from the back, and she pulled him back toward the safety of the sidewalk. I had no right to see the utter disappointment on his face and covering hers too. Yet I see there an autumnal holiness, a real freedom, a love. Her hands moving from his shoulders to cover his chest and enfold him told me, somehow, that one day, one day, one fine day, he would muster the courage to shake free of disappointment. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must take to trust a mute animal, a dog, amid the cacophony of urban traffic. But I know he will find it. Why I bet by today he has done so. Sometimes you just have to jump. You know. When you learn to swim, and let the water hold you. When you take a leap and take a new job. When you ask someone to marry you. When you decide to leave a relationship or a friendship. When you retire. When you join or leave a church.

Looking out over sixty years of theological imagination in this country and abroad, speaking now both of, and to, the liberal Protestant communities, it will have been in retrospect rather a disappointment to see that we have not moved beyond Genesis 9, and in particular that we have not made our way out six more chapters to Genesis 15, in these sixty years. We stand frozen at the intersection. It is Noah who receives the rainbow, the covenant of color; but it is Abraham who receives the firmament, the covenant of light!

Jesus says, I am the light of the world.

I love the rainbow too. I love what Bishop Roy Nichols used to preach, that the world needs a spiritual rainbow. I love what I learned across the rainbow from K. Koyama, and DJ Hall, and J. Cone, and G. Guttierez, and B. Harrison, and C. Heyward, and C. Morse, and R. Ruether. Yes, all this color, celebrated in our churches and in our consciousness for sixty years, from the day my dear parents sat at the feet of Howard Thurman in Boston, it is good. We can sing a rainbow. And we have. But Jesus here does not say I am the color of the world. He says light.

And all the rainbow colors behind the pieces of the other gospels, and the documents like Q behind them, and the stretches of independent writing like Luke’s midsection, and the authentic Paul, and the secondary Paul, and the little John letters, and James, and all the others, all the colors, they are good. But John reminds us of the light from which they are all refracted. And for the 21st century, we will need more light than color. W E B Dubois was right that the issue of the 20th century would be the color line. The issue of the 21st century is light. We will need the universal truth, the global gospel, the eternal dimensions of Christ, that John most celebrates, to carry us out of our very real, and very constricting particularities. Asbury First, with its crowned, regal, welcoming Christ, has everything to offer, as part of a global village green. Jesus said, “He who is not against me is for me.”

I like color. Indigo and Yellow, great colors. Orange, a personal favorite. You like blue, he likes red. Good for you. It is not easy being green. Believe me, I know. Color is great, as long as color remembers the light from which it is refracted. We are all far more human and far more alike than we have recently envisioned. It is John who fills our existential disappointment with a great, universal hope! That this world can work! That in Christ there is no east or west! That God is at work in the world to make and keep human life human!

It can be dangerous to focus too much on difference. Bishop Sharon Rader told this humorous tale. On a winding mountain two-lane, two cars pass. Coming down the hill in a convertible, a young woman, hair blowing, radio blaring, waves and shouts at the car climbing toward her: “Pig! Pig!” Scowling, the other driver, an older man, mumbles that everyone still thinks he is a chauvinist. What right does she have to honk and yell? She doesn’t even know him. He is no chauvinist pig. So he thinks, as he rounds the corner doing 60 and runs right into—a pig. Friends, we are all more human and more alike than we regularly affirm, all of us on this great globe.

We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All six billion.

We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All six billion.

We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All six billion.

We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All six billion.

We all age, and after forty, its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All six billion.

We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. All six billion.

And in the light of the light of the world, what of all our colorful difference? Perhaps we will in the 21st century come to say, of this, as did Aquinas of all his voluminous writing, in a moment of epiphany—“so much straw”.

It is the covenant of the rainbow that fascinates us still. We have not yet opened our eyes, or had our eyes opened, to the awesome bounty and beauty of the covenant of Abraham, the promise of firmament. We have been so concerned about who is in the car, and especially with where everyone is sitting, that we have paid no attention to where we are going. We have been so faithful to representation that we have ignored reality. We have so adored colors that we have forgotten numbers. We have been so eager to provide space for voice that we have neglected the body, the incarnation. To have voice, first you need a torso, lungs, larynx, mouth—body. We have been blind, blinded. The body needs the body to be the body. I love the rainbow too. Galatians 3:28. We miss though the global, expansive, covenantal promise that our progeny will be as many as the stars in the sky, and that the gospel undergirds the world! Galatians 6:14.

We need to leave the rainbow and gaze at the firmament, to leave the afternoon haze and the rainbow for the night sky and the blazing firmament.

“Warmth, warmth, warmth! We are dying of cold, not of darkness. It is not the night that kills, but the frost.” (Unamuno). To leave the fretting about color coordination for the joy, the expansive great joy of welcoming the 50% of this county that has had no first helping of faith, no first exposure to the light. That is where the fun is.

Here is one great, freeing hope for the 21st century, that will move from Noah to Abraham, from rainbow to firmament, from difference to grace. Two Sundays ago our organist, somehow, caught two tunes, and made them one, an utterly Johannine thing to do. He started with “I can sing a rainbow”, and then he moved on to, “He will give me grace and glory”. May the next generation of theologians do the same: move happily from rainbow to firmament, from color to light, from varieties to common ground.


“These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20:31).

Good news: in dislocation, hold onto grace, the grace to be co-dependent no more; in disappointment, hold onto freedom, the freedom to walk in the light as he is in the light.

“A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom” (Frost). So too a sermon, and a life.

One summer day in 1983, arriving late, I walked across a field in Vancouver, toward a tent at the edge of the ocean. The World Council of Churches was meeting in Assembly. Philip Potter, Robert Runcie, Desmond Tutu, Pauline Webb. I can hear the singing still, “In Christ there is no east or west…”

This week you can choose to grow in faith, and so find a fuller part of your second identity. This week you can choose to grow in love, and so open a fuller part of the world’s imagination. This week you can choose to grow in faith, and so find a fuller part of your second identity. This week you can choose to grow in love, and so open a fuller part of the world’s imagination.

Faith is personal commitment to an unverifiable truth. It involves a leap.

Faith is an objective uncertainty grasped with subjective certainty. It involves a leap.

Faith is the way to salvation, a real identity and a rich imagination. But it does involve a leap.

Now is the time to jump.

All of us are better when we are loved.

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